The City of Toledo's fiscal condition is not nearly as dire as it was last winter and spring, when city leaders confronted - and painfully erased - a projected budget deficit that amounted to nearly one-fifth of the general fund. But if the city does not remain committed to enacting labor contracts that recession-battered taxpayers can afford, the red ink will gush again.
Mayor Mike Bell and City Council properly have rejected an arbitrator's recommendations in a contract dispute with the Teamsters local that represents about 180 city refuse and water-plant workers. That report placed less emphasis on the city's ability to pay, or on maintaining sound work practices, than on giving affected workers pay parity with employees of other city unions or with their counterparts in major Ohio cities.
The report would have maintained the archaic system by which the city pays not only its legally mandated share of pension expenses, but also the cost of city workers' own contributions to their pension plans. It would have provided pay adjustments that effectively would have maintained bonus and incentive payments for trash-truck drivers that are obsolete now that the city has converted to automated refuse collection.
At the same time, the fact finder rejected the city's money-saving request to include the Teamsters employees in its health insurance plan. He would have provided a pay raise on top of that in the proposed three-year contract. Even the proposition that refuse employees should work eight-hour days was subject to dispute.
City and union officials should return to negotiations with a sense of realism. It surely would be reasonable for the union to seek pay hikes and job security to compensate for the removal the city seeks of pension-pickup and other outmoded, built-in pay sweeteners. Then, at least, the cost of their new contract would be more evident to city taxpayers.
But "give me whatever he's getting" is no longer a valid basis for determining compensation. Many, if not most, Toledoans who work in the private sector have lost their jobs or endured a cut in wages or hours during this recession. They should not be expected routinely to subsidize, in higher taxes or cuts in city services, the cost of other workers' pay, benefit, and pension agreements that are more generous than they receive.
The Teamsters contract has broader resonance. Through the end of next year, the city must negotiate new agreements with six other unions that represent 2,300 employees. The outcome of the Teamsters bargaining will show whether city officials are serious about holding the line on employee compensation costs that make up nearly 80 percent of the city budget.
When they go back to the table, both sides should spare a thought for a party who is not a direct participant in the talks - the recession-weary taxpayer who ultimately pays for it all.