Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio unveils her 2010 budget this week, and there is one point she and the City Council should agree to at the outset: No pay raises for city employees.
Declining property values and tax collections leave the city $52 million short of balancing next year's budget. While Iorio will not release her spending plan until Thursday, she has said 2010 "will be the third year in a row" that the city will have to cut jobs. Eliminating raises alone would save an estimated $12 million. That is a better alternative than slashing more jobs or public services. The move also would give the city an opportunity to reach new terms with the employees' unions that are fairer to taxpayers.
Tampa is in a different situation than St. Petersburg, where police officers, firefighters and other city workers are entering the last year of contracts that should be honored. The union contracts in Tampa are expiring, and city workers who have held on have done quite well even as the recession has taken hold. In the past several years, rank-and-file employees have received annual pay and cost-of-living increases of almost 7 percent. Firefighters and police officers — represented by politically powerful unions that endorse candidates and raise money in election campaigns — did even better. Firefighters saw their pay increase at least 8 percent a year; police, almost 9 percent.
Iorio has been overly generous to police and firefighters, and her call for a pay freeze is overdue. Firefighters, in particular, have shown no restraint. They asked for another 10 percent bump last year, at the height of the global financial meltdown. The issue goes to the council because Iorio has declared that negotiations with the unions — whose contracts expire this year — have reached an impasse.
The council needs to remain firm. The administration has not proposed reneging on existing contracts — merely suspending pay raises for a year under new contracts going forward. The police and firefighters' unions have offered to give up cost-of-living increases. That is almost meaningless. The recession has depressed wages, and inflation is not an immediate concern.
Having the contracts for all three unions expire at the same time gives the city a chance to make the pay packages fairer. It is unfair, for example, that police and firefighters have received higher cost-of-living increases than general employees. These workers are employed by the same government, live in the same place and face the same costs for goods and services. To level the playing field, the city should reduce multiyear union contracts to a shorter period. That makes it easier for the city to offer salary and benefits that reflect the current employment market.