A useful discussion

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board May 24, 2013 10:06 am

Baker City Herald Editorial Board

A sense of impending financial crisis pervaded Baker City Hall for a few evenings this week but fortunately the specter of laying off police officers and firefighters was short-lived.

The debate among the city’s budget board was, in the main, a healthy one.

It served to remind city officials — though we hope no such reminder was truly necessary — that the economic outlook, though improving, is far from rosy.

And that uncertainty needs to be reflected in the labor contracts city administrators are negotiating with the three unions that represent most city employees.

Each of those unions has a five-year contract that expires June 30.

That’s an unusually long period but we supported the deals when they were approved in 2008 because the duration allowed the city to accurately forecast its personnel costs — which make up about 70 percent of spending — for five years.

Those contracts seem especially generous today in part because they took effect just months before the economy started its historic plunge.

Police received a 3-percent raise for each of the five years.

Firefighters got 4 percent the first year and 3 percent each of the remaining four years.

Members of the third union, which represents mainly public works employees, received between 2 percent and 4 percent for each of the five years (the contract stipulated annual raises based on the federal Consumer Price Index, which ranged from -0.4 percent to 3.8 percent during the contract period, but the amount could not be less than 2 percent nor more than 4 percent).

Many of the local residents whose property taxes go to City Hall didn’t get any raises during that period. Some lost their jobs.

We commend city officials for being responsible in budgeting; the city is fortunate, and somewhat unusual these days, in that it doesn’t need to lay off employees to balance its budget.

But the budget board members who this week critiqued the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year were right to point out that the city can’t maintain its current enviable financial position and still approve lavish, long-term contracts.

It’s far better — and wiser — to acknowledge this now. Financial challenges, unlike wine, almost never improve when they’re stored away and forgotten for a while.