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Published: Wednesday, 5/19/2010

Deal is no deal

DURING the city's budget crisis earlier this year, no municipal union fought necessary economic concessions more fiercely than the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association. Now the city is rewarding the police union for its obstructionism, while kicking still-serious fiscal problems down the road for another year.

The new agreement between Mayor Mike Bell's administration and the police union is useful in averting the layoffs of as many as 125 officers, at least through next March. But while the mayor defends the deal as the best the city could reach just now, he concedes that it does not address chronic structural issues in the budget that demand attention.

Biggest among these is that the city — that is, taxpayers — will continue to pay all or the great majority of most municipal workers' own 10-percent share of the cost of their pension premiums. The city must, by law, contribute another 19.5 percent to the cost of employee retirement plans.

This “pension pickup” is an archaic carry-over from past labor agreements that the city and its taxpayers no longer can afford. It conceals the full cost of city employees' compensation. Most comparable Ohio cities, much less private employers, don't provide such a subsidy.

The budget emergency that City Council declared in March at the mayor's request — called “exigent circumstances” — would have required all city employees to pay their own pension costs through the end of the year, and to pay more for their health insurance. The police union sued to reverse the declaration, calling it an unfair labor practice because it unilaterally changed the terms of its current contract.

Under the new agreement, the city will resume full pension pickup for police officers next week. Although it defers overtime payments until next April, the 3.5 percent raise that officers will get next year will apply to those payments as well.

In many ways, that's a better deal than the city gave members of other unions, which are paying part of their pension costs — albeit just 3 percent — for the rest of the year. The only exception is the firefighters' union, which was rewarded for being the first to reach a voluntary agreement with the city by getting those pension payments refunded.

City officials evidently were worried that they would lose their “exigent circumstances” case before the State Employment Retirement Board, which helped broker the agreement with the police union. The board had concluded that both the city and union may have violated collective bargaining standards, and was seeking a court order against the city.

But even if the administration cut the best deal it felt it could under the circumstances, its work isn't over.

The agreement does not prevent Mayor Bell from pursuing his plan to place a proposal on the November ballot that would abolish pension pickup in future contracts with city unions. If city officials are unable or unwilling to press the issue, taxpayers should get the opportunity.

Even though many newly hired city employees are not eligible for pension pickup, unions may demand big raises to compensate for the elimination of the practice. And that's fine, as long as the negotiating process is transparent and taxpayers know what it will cost them.

That would be a departure from the way the city often has done business. But given the mayor's pledges of openness and candor, that would be an appropriate next step.

Merely deferring the problem is not.



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