It’s somewhat ironic given that the city is synonymous with the heavily-unionized auto industry, but Windsor is increasingly a bellwether for municipalities’ unsustainable staffing levels, wages and benefits.
This week, council there voted to outsource janitorial services at a city-owned long-term care home, saving taxpayers’ $600,000 a year. In recent years, it has pushed unionized workers to take a four-year wage freeze and reduced benefits for new hires, and has been in the forefront of the battle against the unbalanced arbitration system for police and firefighters.
Windsor’s economic woes are well documented, but it’s far from unique in facing challenges with the current costs of staff and the long-term liabilities they impose on the citizens of every municipality.
While it’s clear that municipal governments must eventually deal with scaling back staff spending, there’s been nary a word about the problem as local governments in this neck of the woods discuss their 2017 budgets. Wage freezes are the obvious first step – well, obvious to everyone but the politicians and bureaucrats – to be followed by assessing staff levels and over-inflated salaries.
Staff will resist, of course, but they’re clearly in a conflict position and any comments contrary to the necessary direction should be disregarded.
The first step is to separate wage agreements for unionized and non-unionized workers. There’s a clear conflict when senior staff receives the same increases they negotiate with the unionized workers. Councillors’ pay should again be a separate matter. Each should be debated in the open, making the spending of public money truly transparent no matter how uncomfortable that makes public employees.
This is the way the process should work. However, we’ve seen a disturbing trend in some municipalities toward automatic annual increases, sometimes tied to increases negotiated with municipal staffers. Throw in a propensity for closed meetings and residents are not seeing any accountability for what is surely the most conflict-ridden part of a councillor’s duties.
Each of the municipal employee groups – unionized workers, staff and council – should be handled separately in negotiations about compensation.
While negotiations with the union are typically confidential, it falls to council to set the tone early and in public. In this case, given recessionary times and the growing gap between over-inflated public sector wages and the incomes of those in the real, productive part of the economy, freezes are appropriate. A line must be drawn, and councils cannot depend on management to do that.
Councillors will have to be on the lookout for bureaucrat tactics to derail the public good. When wage freezes and rollbacks are discussed, staff’s default assumption is that services will be cut, rather than doing away with unneeded managerial positions. Front line services are what residents are overtaxed to pay. Bureaucratic bloat is what management encourages to make its life easier and to pad the payroll. When it comes to choosing between the two, councillors have an easy decision.
The idea is to identify the most essential of services offered to residents, then to begin trimming away at everything else.
In budget deliberations, there is a rationale for every spending request. Taken in isolation, each may make sense, but it’s the role of elected officials to see the big picture, and to nip in the bud empire-building and incremental growth.