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Gorging at the trough

5/18/2010, 11:03 a.m.
“I know he’s a hero, but I couldn’t take that job because it’s below my pay grade.”

Gorging at the trough

In the business world, management works to control labor costs and workers are usually ambitious for more money in their pay checks. This naturally contentious relationship is constrained by the mutual awareness of the necessity to preserve the success of the business enterprise.

There is no such constraint in the public sector. Funds available for payday are not limited by sales revenue. Public employees look to the deep pockets of taxpayers. There lies the problem. There is no one at labor contract negotiations to represent single-mindedly, the interests of the taxpayers.

A conflict of interest is inevitable because of the clout of the various unions on elections for public office. The teachers, the policemen and the firefighters can mobilize an awesome campaign against offending politicians. Awareness of this has to influence the conduct of most public officials charged with the responsibility of confronting the unions in negotiations.

The Boston City Council will soon conduct hearings on whether to approve or reject the arbitration award of a 19 percent pay raise for Boston firefighters. According to Mayor Thomas Menino, it will cost the city $74 million to fund this increase instead of the $43 million price tag of a 14 percent increase. Reasonable people believe that the 19 percent increase is unreasonable, especially during a recession when restraint is essential for fiscal survival.

Like most people, firefighters complain that they are underpaid. However, that is not the case when one considers the requirements for the job. It is not necessary to be a high school graduate as long as the applicant can pass the state civil service exam. Then starting pay is $52,000 a year, much higher than the average income of only about $31,071 for Americans with no more than a high school diploma.

The demands of the firefighters pale when compared with the capacity of police officers to fatten their pay checks. According to a recent Boston Globe report on police salaries in 2009, the top 10 earners made from $272,000 down to $237,000. A captain and a lieutenant were able to earn about $248,000. This is more than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of all the US military, the principal military advisor to the president.

It makes little managerial sense to treat high ranking police officials like hourly wage earners. Can you imagine soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan submitting requests for overtime pay because they went on night patrol?

The excessive firemen’s arbitration award should focus taxpayers’ attention on how public employees are paid. The state Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick have just enacted legislation to close the so-called “king for a day” pension loophole. This prevents personnel from filling in at a higher grade level on the day before retirement to become entitled to a higher pension. There are also efforts to make employer provided healthcare more affordable.

Citizens should be alerted by the firefighters’ arbitration award to the impact on taxes of all unconscionable salary demands of public employees. The people must put an end to gorging at the public trough. It is a very serious pocketbook issue.