While the private sector is feeling the pinch of a damaged economy and is sending out pink slips, so is the state, counties, schools, even the Port of Seattle. Yet the City of Seattle seems oddly naive about this crisis. It's clear that revenue will take a massive hit and unlike the Feds we can't print money to meet the city payroll.
The State of the City speech delivered yesterday by Mayor Greg Nickels rightly emphasized the many impressive accomplishments we've seen in recent years, and strongly supported Seattle's ongoing commitment to keeping a social-services safety net in place, as other sources of support grow thin.
What was missing was detailed talk about the cuts that will be necessary as revenues from sales tax and user fees drop, an inevitable accessory to the already poor economy. (News of Metro's worrisome fiscal woes broke yesterday too, by the way.) Stimulus packages, volunteer corps and creation of new hourly wage jobs to fix potholes are great, but as any business owner can tell you, nothing replaces cash money coming in the door.
Every day a new list of companies firing employees makes the news: Wamu, Boeing, Macy's, Starbucks, Microsoft. And those are just the large, well-known companies. The small outfits with handfuls of employees are being hit even harder. Gov. Christine Gregoire recently said 32,000 Washington workers have lost their jobs. Is it possible Seattle lawmakers think their city workforce is recession-proof?
Occasionally we hear about unions turning down pay raises, realizing that if they don't they or their friends might lose their jobs. A pay cut is, after all, less painful than a pink slip. Although those are exceptions, so far. When Gregoire tried in December to roll back agreements made with some state employees, they filed suit. Their message is clear: Screw the public, I want the raise!
Meanwhile, neither Mayor Nickels nor the Seattle City Council seem to notice that our city workers are among the highest-paid in the nation — or if they do, they apparently think there are other ways to preserve these salary levels.
Seattle's total city payroll is $743,195,514.23. We have 11,201 city employees, up from 10,300 in 2004. If things were equal, each city employee would make an average of $66,356.74, not including benefits, which is a healthy income, but not wildly lavish today. But, of course, upper-level administrators make a whole lot more than the people cleaning your park or filling potholes. So it turns out that we have 689 employees who make more than $100,000 a year.
Just how much should our city workers be paid? Good question. The cost of living in greater Seattle is certainly higher than a number of other American cities, justifying a higher wage. We also assume that if you want top people, they come at a price. City Light's chief honcho Jorge Carrasco is paid $225,000 — and wants more. What's the criteria for evaluating performance? Keeping the lights on?
OK, let's move on. What about the Christmas snow event? Estimates of storm costs (lost revenue and wages) range into the millions, but Nickels and Director of Transportation Grace Crunican have not seemed too worried. Crunican makes $187,314 a year, the eighth-highest paid city executive. You may remember that she was out of town during the storm crisis, but said she was in close touch with her administrative experts in snow removal. That communication did little good, and the blame does not lie with the snow-plow operators. Blame the lack of planning, defined, sensible policy and effective leadership. We have to wonder if the same lack of leadership in the private sector would be worth $187,000.
The snow debacle isn't the only example, just the most recent. Look at other Seattle Transportation projects: Does it really take a crowd to fill a pothole? Or, worse, ten supervisors to decide how they should go about it.
All this brings us back to the first question: Will a spiraling economy force the firing of public employees or lower their wages? Unlikely. Among the most effective political-action groups in the city are local civil-service unions. They make contributions to political campaigns and, along with other protections, the negotiations with unions are all top secret. State law — RCW 42.30.140(4)(b) — prevents any outsiders from attending the meetings where pay policy is discussed. (By the way, the Seattle City Council Labor Policy Committee, which deals with public-employee pay, has Nick Licata, Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess, and Sally Clark as members.) Given the secrecy of the pay discussions, we taxpayers have no clue what negotiations are going on at the same time that we should be considering layoffs or provisional freezes in wages.
Nickels likes the math of hiring more people to stimulate the economy, and in his recent speech reminded taxpayers that the city has been through tough times before on his watch. A partial truth in both cases: We'll need more than new jobs and we ain't seen nothing yet when it comes to hard times.
One thing is crystal clear: If there is a movement toward decreasing city workers' pay, it will start with the folks cleaning up the park, not the 689 lucky souls who make over $100,000 a year.
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