I have been campaigning for Wauwatosa mayor going on three months. Clearly the “passion” in this election season is invested in the governor, Act 10 and on collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s public employees.
This is the prism through which many citizens evaluate aspirants to local office this year and they want to know “where I stand.” In addition, the issue of employee compensation will remain active and critical for the city in the near term. Act 10 did not solve it all. It gave us the opportunity to work on it.
Long before the Budget Repair Bill, I waged a high-energy effort at City Council to bring our employee compensation costs under control. When I came to office in 2006, those costs had been consistently rising more than our tax rate, and our tax rate had been rising more than inflation and more than I believed our citizens would continue to tolerate. Compensation costs being 72% of all expense means that’s an unsustainable trend.
However, I also took note that the benefits currently enjoyed by our employees far (far!) exceeded those enjoyed by most of our citizens and that the wage levels were clearly less than “market” for only a few of our employees. After the economic downturn in 2008, the difference became more pronounced.
In 2006, there was little appetite for this fight in City Hall. So I carped and carped and tried to get the public interested and vocal. I discussed the issue with many constituents and their jaws dropped when I described our pension, health care, retiree health care and sick pay benefits. Regardless of their ideological or partisan stripes, they expressed outrage and encouraged me to persist.
Most of the Council came around to my point of view but, nonetheless, we failed to achieve substantial corrections. Despite the "will of the people" or the requirements of sound management, and despite the severe economic setbacks experienced by most of our citizens in 2008, the law governing collective bargaining and binding arbitration prevented correction.
I called for reform of this law along the lines promoted by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities which, in 2010, was considered radical reform and achieved no traction in the Legislature (though tame compared to what would come next).
We were bargaining with our five unions in early 2011 (contracts had expired) prior to the introduction of the Budget Repair Bill. We were not, in my opinion, achieving the concessions that would be fair to our citizens, and I voted against a tentative agreement reached by our administrator and the Fire Fighter Union. That agreement featured: continuation of 0% employee contribution to pension, employee contribution of 6% of health care premium (rising to 10% by 2013), and 2.5% wage increases.
This represents the disposition of those we bargained with here in Tosa on the eve of the Budget Repair Bill. I saw little willingness to share in the hardship recently suffered by most of our citizens.
So, when the Budget Repair Bill was introduced, my reaction was: 1) shock and awe; 2) relief, that we now could actually manage this expense, 3) disappointment that the bill applied to only 33 percent of our payroll.
I voted and supported all measures to effect the terms of the bill as soon as possible and that happened last August. Additional terms were effected in January.
Where do we go from here assuming the new law holds up? I was a young manager in the ‘80s in the only large insurance company in Milwaukee that did not have a union in its shop. Our long-time president constantly chided us to manage a workplace in which the workers felt fairly treated, enjoyed opportunities to grow, felt comfortable negotiating on their own behalf, and therefore, saw no reason to establish a union. That experience guides me.
As mayor and citizen, I will depend on the productivity and creativity of our employees to find ways to satisfy our citizens while using less resource. I look forward to our employees enjoying the highest compensation among all municipal employees in the region because they will also be the most productive and because their citizens will be the most satisfied. I believe that is not far beyond our grasp.
See the position paper on my web site under Issues & Positions on “Reinventing City Government”: www.petedonegan.com