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Raises from the mayor outpace private sector

Personnel costs soar over the past decade

Second in series of occasional articles examining the mayor's performance on major issues during his 12 years in office.

During the last decade, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has granted more generous raises to Boston's police officers, firefighters, and teachers than private sector employers have given to their workers, increasing the city's personnel costs and squeezing other departments and programs.

According to the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, private sector salaries in the Northeast have increased 40 percent since June 1994. But since July of that year, the beginning of Menino's first full fiscal year as mayor, Boston's spending on salaries for police has increased 69 percent, for the school department 60 percent, and for firefighters 57 percent, according to a Globe analysis. Those numbers, which are not adjusted for inflation, do not include overtime.

The police and school workforces grew by 8 percent and 14 percent during that time, but the fire department has shrunk by 4 percent. Together, the three departments employ about 75 percent of the city's workers.

Graced with almost unprecedented prosperity during much of his tenure, Menino has had the resources to take great strides to improve the city. After more than a decade in office, the popular mayor can boast about a low crime rate, better schools, more low-cost housing, and many refurbished streets, parks, and libraries. But expensive contracts have prevented Menino, who pledged a new era of fiscal responsibility when he took the helm, from doing more.

Overall, Menino's record in labor talks is one of generosity during the good times and an inability to hold the line on salaries and benefits during the tough ones. As a result, personnel costs have consumed an increasing portion of the city's budget, leaving less money to maintain parks, fix streets, and provide summer jobs for teenagers.

''He has been generous in relation to what the city has received in return," said Samuel R. Tyler who heads the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group that monitors city spending. ''So now you have a situation where police sergeants are making $200,000, far more than the $165,000 the commissioner is making. And the cost of a police officer does have a direct bearing on the number of officers that can be employed by the city -- and the resources available to other departments."

As he seeks a fourth term, Menino can point to some examples of skillful fiscal management. Boston's bond ratings have risen steadily since he took office. Moody's Investors Service, which recently conducted an analysis of the city's finances and budget, praised the city for ''extremely strong and proactive management strategies" that have enabled it to generate surpluses every year since 1997. And Menino steered the city through a recession, and a steep decline in state aid, without dramatic cuts in programs and services.

The cost of health insurance, a major contributor to Boston's growing labor expenses, is largely beyond the city's control, and it has been rising rapidly during Menino's time in office. Health insurance now accounts for 7.4 percent of the overall budget, compared with 4.4 percent in fiscal 1995. Since fiscal 1997, the city's health insurance costs have increased by $81.7 million, or 117 percent.

But Menino decides how much city workers will be paid, and the raises he has given to teachers, police officers, and firefighters have made them among the highest-paid city employees in the country.

Under Menino, police officers' salaries in inflation-adjusted dollars have grown by between 6 percent and 26 percent, depending on education and experience. By the same measure, firefighters have received raises of between 16 percent and 24 percent, and teachers' salaries have risen by between 9 percent and 23 percent.

In an interview, Menino defended the contracts and his overall fiscal record, saying that much of the salary gains for teachers and police officers came in the form of education incentives that produced better-trained workers and helped the city retain its best employees. He pointed out that the contracts he inherited from his predecessor, Raymond L. Flynn, included annual raises of 6.5 percent, more than he has ever given. And last year's talks with police officers and firefighters, he pointed out, were settled by an arbitrator.

The bottom line, Menino said, is Wall Street's verdict.

''I can't say how important that bond rating is to us. It verifies everything that my administration has been doing for the last several years," the mayor said. ''We have three bond-rating agencies nationally, which come and look at our books and make decisions about what we're doing, and they're saying to us, 'City of Boston, you know how to manage the resources you have effectively.' "

Menino has had to confront tough unions willing to engage in brinksmanship. In a demonstration outside John Hancock Hall before the mayor's 2001 State of the City address, firefighters who had been working without a contract for 18 months hurled insults at Menino and members of his family and spat at administration officials as they entered the building. Last summer, police officers threatened to picket the Democratic National Convention if they didn't get the raises they wanted.

Furthermore, with money pouring into city coffers through much of the 1990s and the beginning of this decade, Menino could not plead poverty in contract talks.

''From an outsider's perspective, I thought he fought pretty hard," said Bruce Wallin, an associate professor at Northeastern University who specializes in public finance. In the last round of contract negotiations, Wallin said, the Democratic National Convention gave the unions leverage, and they used it to maximum effect.

''The salary increases they have coming up are big," he said. ''But the way it played out, it seems to me, the unions were holding all the cards, so he was in a tough position."

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, noted that the Boston area is an expensive place to live, and that housing costs have exploded during the last decade. The average Boston teacher now makes $69,022, up 60 percent in the past decade. But Stutman says that number includes a huge group of senior teachers who will soon retire, and that Boston had to raise its salaries to compete with surrounding school districts for the best teaching talent.

''If you go by experience, education, and job difficulty, teachers are probably paid a lot less than they deserve," Stutman said. ''You're giving people an awful lot of responsibility, expecting an awful lot, and then paying them at wages that are barely enough to live in Boston."

But Tyler and advocates who want principals to have more power to hire and fire teachers say that in raising salaries the mayor has failed to secure concessions that would have made the police and fire departments more efficient and Boston schools better.

The Quinn Bill, a state program that allows police officers to boost their base salaries by between 10 percent and 25 percent by earning degrees in criminal justice, law enforcement, and law, is a prime example. Government watchdogs say the degrees are of dubious value, and former mayors Kevin H. White and Flynn declined to give Quinn Bill benefits to Boston's police. But Menino conceded them in the second contract he negotiated with them, in 1998. Since it took effect in fiscal 2001, the program has cost the city $46.5 million. This year, about $9.6 million of the $188.5 million budgeted for police department salaries will pay for Quinn Bill bonuses.

Last summer, an arbitrator split the difference between the 17 percent raise over four years that the police were demanding and the 11 percent Menino was offering, settling on 14.5 percent. Under the new contract, base salaries for patrolmen range from $49,174 to $77,682. But many officers' salaries are much higher as a result of the Quinn Bill, overtime, and paid details. In 2004, the average total pay for patrolmen was $90,241.

The Boston Police Patrolmen's Association did not respond to repeated request for comment on this story. In the past, the union has noted that its members received no raise in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 because they won Quinn Bill benefits.

Firefighters have pointed to the Quinn Bill in making the case for their own raises. In 2001, they got raises of 22 percent over four years, including other seniority bonuses. They also got a new, more liberal sick leave policy that allows them to accumulate unused sick leave and be paid for a portion of it at retirement. The retirement payments will cost the city at least $20 million, according to the Municipal Research Bureau. The firefighters' most recent contract, signed last year, includes raises of 10.5 percent over three years.

Ed Kelly, president of Firefighters Local 718, declined to comment on the contracts.

In 2000, teachers won average raises of 15 percent over three years, but those raises came on top of annual ''step" increases of about 4 percent annually for teachers who hadn't yet reached the maximum pay grade. Under the contract signed last year, teachers will get raises that average 8.5 percent over three years, but with ''step" increases and education incentives almost a third of teachers will get raises of between 28 percent and 30 percent, according to the Municipal Research Bureau.

Many school advocates believe the city should have gotten more for its money and that the union blocked other changes that would have made the schools better.

''We need more flexibility to hire earlier, and more ability to streamline the evaluation process so that we can provide support to teachers who need it, and help those who are no longer effective to move on to other occupations," said John Mudd of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a nonprofit group that focuses on poor, minority, and disabled children. ''I don't begrudge people the salaries, and it's a tough, tough, tough job. On the other hand, people should be able to do a better job and be more accountable."

Increased spending on salaries for teachers, police officers, and firefighters has stunted growth in other areas of the budget.

Human services spending, for example, has risen $6.2 million, or 26.7 percent since fiscal 1997. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, that translates into growth of only 4.5 percent. Last year, a study of the city's 38 community centers by a Watertown consulting firm found ''pockets of excellence," but also centers that ''serve a fraction of the children, youth and families who need their services." Community centers are the biggest item in the human services budget. Community Matters complimented the Menino administration for its capital investment in the centers, $57 million in the past decade, but suggested that staff salaries may have to be raised to attract more skilled and qualified people.

The city has struggled to pay for summer jobs for teenagers since Beacon Hill cut its contribution during the state's fiscal crisis. The city sponsored 5,572 jobs in 2001, up from 2,791 when Menino took office. But the number of jobs declined to 2,476 when state money dried up in 2003. This summer, there are 3,300.

Spending on parks has also lagged. It has increased by $3.4 million, or 32 percent, since fiscal 1997. But when the gain is adjusted for inflation, the increase is only 9 percent. Under Menino, the city has added 166 acres of parkland, increasing its overall green space by 8 percent.

Since fiscal 2002, the number of maintenance workers for parks has decreased from 173 to 152, forcing many citizens to pick up the slack. That situation had led to disparities between parks in rich and poor neighborhoods, according to Betsey Johnson of the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust.

City officials say that through efficient management -- installing low-maintenance artificial turf on some athletic fields, for example -- they've been able to do more with less. But Johnson says the city is deferring maintenance at many parks, creating the need for larger capital expenditures when things completely collapse.

While critics highlight areas in which Menino might have spent more, he and his defenders note that his balanced budgets have cut administrative costs while boosting spending, however unevenly, in nearly every area of government. The mayor insists that the raises he has agreed to are well within the city's means.

''They're the unions -- they're going to ask for what they can get," he said. ''I know what the city can afford, and I continue to try to hold the line as best I can on those increases."

The first article in this series appeared May 22, 2005.

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