Nearly five months after negotiations began, the city’s police and fire unions and city management are still looking for an employment agreement that all parties can support. It is becoming clear that all parties need to look harder.
The city’s negotiating process with its two unions is disappointing on a number of levels. First, the public deserves to know why this process is taking so long, but currently the public has been left largely in the dark. Negotiations between the groups are held behind closed doors, which gives the public little ability to understand the issues and offer guidance to its elected officials. Perhaps a little public pressure would be useful to help break this loggerhead.
It is disappointing that a loggerhead exists in the first place. During these tough economic times, it is not difficult to find communities where reductions in the public safety forces of a community are being contemplated. That’s not the case in Lawrence. In fact, the city in 2012 is increasing property taxes slightly to fund additional police officer positions. Commissioners also are in the middle of a multi-year plan to adds millions of dollars worth of new equipment to the fire department’s fleet. Police officers and firefighters in Lawrence don’t have it all that bad.
On the other side of the equation — during these tough economic times — the city has a general fund savings account of more than $12 million. City commissioners are working with a public that apparently is more willing to accept tax increases than most — given that in recent years voters have approved three sales tax increases and now a property tax increase to build a larger library. Lawrence city commissioners also don’t have it all that bad.
Yet somehow, it takes months and months to come up with a deal to keep people employed in an economy where a job has never been more precious.
The city needs to be cognizant of the message these drawn out negotiations is sending. They send a poor message to the public and a poor message to the non-union employees at City Hall. The city’s 2012 budget already has been set. The amount of money the city will spend in 2012 has been determined. Yet, we don’t know what we’re paying the city’s police officers and firefighters. An amount will be determined, and that amount will be taken out of the already approved 2012 city budget. Apparently, non-union employees get the leftovers.
That’s not a proper message to send to those employees. While police and fire employees provide vital services to this community, so do the non-union employees. Many of their jobs are critical to community safety as well — ensuring safe drinking water on a daily basis, ensuring proper sanitation by removing our trash on a daily basis, Municipal Court employees who keep the justice system moving on a daily basis, and the list could go on.
The city’s workforce should not be a two-tiered system, and city leaders need to think hard about whether this current process is creating one.
But first, all parties of this process need to work hard to finish the current negotiations. We know all sides are capable. Police and firefighters in Lawrence are excellent public servants. City commissioners and their staff have shown fine leadership during these challenging times.
However, now is the time for all involved to buckle down and think about the bigger picture. We’re living in a time where far too many people have lost their jobs, where far too many people — especially in the private sector — have had to take wage cuts to keep their jobs, and we’re living in a community that has many issues to solve if we hope to return to our past prosperity.
It is time to end these negotiations and get on with that important work.