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Sunday, April 18, 2010

FROM WALLINGFORD - In the same fiscal boat

This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD is from my counterpart on the column – Stephen Knight

The Wallingford Town Council held a public hearing on the proposed 2010-2011 Town Budget last Wednesday. As expected, most of the attendees spoke about the Education budget. Most were parents and teachers (very often both) speaking out in favor of maintaining the current level of education spending. As Chairman Parisi acknowledged, they were passionate, articulate, knowledgeable and polite, altogether a real credit to themselves and to the public process.

There was one other attendee: a giant elephant in the room that no one save one lone speaker would even admit existed. That is the proposal that the employees of the Town of Wallingford forego a wage increase for one year in order to prevent layoffs. They spoke about how many talented teachers would be lost, how much the Special Ed students benefited from the system, the potential disruption of reconfiguring the elementary schools, and how hard the BOE had worked to trim the budget already. Everybody talked of the hardships resulting from teacher and staff layoffs, but nobody even came close to recognizing the obvious solution.

It was almost surreal. Speaker after speaker pleaded with councilors not to eliminate these positions, eloquently describing how much value these young teachers brought to the system and how we would lose their energy and talent because of their absence. Yet the simple idea of town employees giving up a wage increase for one year was considered so alien a concept in this world that all the dislocation and hardship described was considered utterly unavoidable.

Why does this perception exist? Let’s examine it from these two vantage points: 1) the public employee world and 2) the union world. And please understand from the get-go that this is not criticism of either but analysis of the reality of both.

First of all, until very recently, government employees have lived in a universe of ever-expanding dollars. Dollars in the private sector are finite, because institutions in this world are confined to only that money they can attract by offering something people want. Government, on the other hand, commands its resources through taxation, the amount limited only to the greater economy’s ability to provide. And that money has always gushed forth from the dynamic American economy. The public employee has never known otherwise — until now — and the new reality of limited resources is not really setting in. 250 people laid off at Marlin Firearms? A one-day story. Layoffs in government? Unheard of. Can’t happen. The money’s there somewhere.

Secondly, unions are in the business of negotiating more for their members. Not less. Not the same. More. Here’s why. Have you ever had to push a car? Remember how hard it was to get it rolling; how much effort it took to get it moving? And how much easier it seemed to keep it moving, and the last thing you wanted was for it to slow to a stop because of how hard it would be to get it going again? Well, unions think that way too. It took them years and years to get to the point where, when they sit down with management to negotiate a new contract, wage increases are assumed. The momentum of negotiating is not whether there will be increases, but how much will these assumed increases be. And we are now asking them to accept a wage freeze — to stop the car, if you will. And their thinking is: if we do this, how will we ever get that momentum back? How will we ever get back to “more” being inevitable?

We are all — taxpayer and public employee alike— navigating in some rough water, and it sure looks like we will be for quite some time. The question then becomes: when will we realize that to survive, we all need to be in the same boat? And paddling in the same direction? And how in the heck do we get there?

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