Globe Editorial

Fire deal is a relief for council — but an alarm to taxpayers

June 10, 2010

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IT IS A SAD DAY for Boston and other Bay State communities when politics, strong-arm tactics, and a flawed arbitration process combine to produce a municipal-employment contract that vastly exceeds cost-of-living increases at a time when few taxpayers have had that luxury. The new firefighters’ contract, reluctantly accepted by Mayor Menino and approved by the City Council, is simply too expensive.

Concessions granted by the firefighters’ union — extending the deal by a year with only a modest increase, and delaying the portion of the pay hike allotted in exchange for mandatory drug and alcohol testing — were meaningful, but not significant enough to change the basic nature of the arbitration award. The political leaders who approved the deal were in a tough spot, torn between accepting the concessions or rejecting them and setting the stage for a rancorous renegotiation process without any assurance of the outcome.

The stakes were high enough that they should have held out. Having accepted a deal that they believe was the best they could get, however, the mayor and City Council should commit themselves to ensuring that they are never in this position again. That means establishing a firm baseline with municipal unions that essentially ties public workers’ salaries and benefits to those in the private sector — so that taxpayers who are struggling to make do with less don’t get soaked to provide more for already privileged public workers. When private salaries are rising and the unemployment rate is low, unionized public workers should share in the economic gains; when times are bad, with high unemployment and pay cuts or minimal raises for most workers, government employees should share the pain.

Firefighters often risk their lives to save their fellow citizens. They deserve the best possible training and equipment. They also deserve generous compensation. And they were already getting it. Even before this new contract was approved, Boston’s firefighter salaries were close to the top in the nation, with work shifts of only two or three days a week, and with benefit levels unseen in almost any private-sector workplace. Now, firefighters with 10 years’ experience will earn $87,336 a year, and can eventually retire, at relatively young ages, with lifetime pensions based on those salaries.

Nonetheless, the major concern for taxpayers is not restraining the compensation for one group of employees. It’s making sure that enough funds are available for vital government services, and for the public investments in education and infrastructure that are crucial to sustaining the region’s economic competitiveness. Maintaining a culture of endlessly escalating salaries for those who provide basic services is counterproductive. It naturally breeds distrust of government, and it makes Massachusetts an expensive place to live and do business. Those are the real stakes in the firefighters’ contract, which will be a model for municipal unions across the state. All the state’s taxpayers have reason to be worried.

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