Letter: The time to fix our problem was last spring

Posted 7/8/20

To the editor:

Your most recent editorial asks how government employees in Barrington and Rhode Island can possibly be getting raises at a time when “unemployment is suddenly in double …

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Letter: The time to fix our problem was last spring

Posted

To the editor:

Your most recent editorial asks how government employees in Barrington and Rhode Island can possibly be getting raises at a time when “unemployment is suddenly in double digits, good jobs are gone, some forever, and many fortunate enough to still hold jobs have seen hours and pay shrink.”

Your questions may not rise to the level of ‘anguished cry,’ but I bet there are more than a few taxpayers in town whose situations qualify. You and your readers deserve an answer to these questions. I believe that the nine years I served on the Committee on Appropriations qualifies me as much as anyone to attempt an answer. Here it is: The time to fix our current problem was last spring.

You lament the “Can’t touch that, it’s under contract” reflexive response from government leaders. Yet, this is at the heart of why budgets increase every year – this year a lot. The very purpose of multi-year contracts is to prevent radical changes in compensation in times of stress. That’s not to say that the agreements cannot be amended mid-contract. They can. But, to bring the unions to the table mid-contract would require a radical shortfall in revenues that would result in layoffs so severe that it would cause the union members to pressure their leadership. Even then, union leadership would be loathe make any changes ‘for the benefit of the town and it’s taxpayers.’ Unions exist to protect their members and the stream of revenue that comes from them. To believe anything else is naïve. The individual members of a union may be sympathetic, may be members of the community, and may be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of their neighbors and community. But, they are not negotiating the terms of the contract. They have relinquished that role to union leadership who have a responsibility to a larger group and often national organizations.

If the unions were brought to the table to renegotiate the terms of their contracts, you can be well-assured that anything they give up in the short run to ‘help’ the town will be repaid and then some in later years. They have a contract. Why would they give up something without getting something in return? Additionally, whatever leverage the town might have had when negotiating union contracts evaporated when our current state representatives and state senator enacted a law called ‘Evergreen Contracts’ that keeps the contracts in force even after they have technically expired.

Although we read about the economic destruction happening all around us, the budget crises of other states and municipalities, and we observe the income reductions of friends and neighbors and perhaps ourselves, it is not clear whether the promised revenues from the state will be disrupted this year. It makes sense that they will, but federal money targeted to shoring up state and municipal budgets is hoped for and being counted on by our town and state. The ability of the taxpayers to meet their property tax obligations is not considered. If that sounds harsh, it is. The bitter truth is that the policies that our town continues to pursue encourages the replacement of taxpayers that cannot ‘keep up’ with better financed taxpayers that can pay their property taxes.  Anyone relying on a fixed income will find themselves shifting funds from ‘disposable’ to ‘taxes’, year after year, never ending. When it becomes a choice between taxes and necessities, it is no longer a choice. It’s time to move.

So, trying to fix the problem of ever-expanding budgets in the year that a revenue problem arises is the worst way of handling the budget because the town has no leverage and few good options. The answer lies with the Town Council and the School Committee. The power to negotiate employee compensation and the terms of the contracts lie with them. Three-year contracts were negotiated with all the unions that represent our town’s union employees last Spring. They will expire in 2022 (technically). It was the responsibility of the Town Council and the School Committee to direct their negotiators to make the contracts as favorable to the town and taxpayers as possible. Beyond 2-1/2 percent raises across the board, I’m not aware of any substantial changes to the contracts. The time to fix our current problem was last Spring.

Geoff Grove

Barrington

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.