Local government cuts are real; workers are doing their part

By Chris Dugovich

Well into a deep economic downturn, cuts in county and city budgets across the state are occurring at a fast and furious pace. Governments large and small are using different strategies and tactics to get a handle on the problem and prepare for the future.

Aside from loss of jobs and services, one of the more frustrating elements of the crisis is that the press covering these events too often takes the point of view that the cuts are just illusionary, never enough to address the shortfall, or the fault of public employee contracts and benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is difficult to say with a straight face that the global recession — driven by a bloated housing market and lax oversight of Wall Street — is somehow the fault of a librarian or sanitation worker. The contracts negotiated by government workers in Washington state since 2002 have been relatively modest, reflecting the 1 percent cap on property taxes that fails to address cost of living and inflation, and mindful of rising health-care costs. In fact, local government workers have accepted tens of millions in additional health care costs over the past several years. It isn’t a contract that creates — or perpetuates — a recession.

From the perspective of any worker, cuts to salary and benefits are significant. Snohomish County took a real 4.25 percent wage cut in 2009 and 2010 is yet to be determined. In 2011, Seattle is bracing to correct a $56 million problem. The library employees took a five-day furlough without pay in 2010 and no doubt will be expected to do more in 2011, including suffer job losses.

The layoffs across the state are real. Behind the numbers are real individuals with families. From the planners and permit processors who were the first to go with the slide in the housing industry, to the general cutting of positions in county or city hall operations, job losses are felt throughout the state. Added to the layoffs are the hiring freezes that are cutting budgets everywhere. An employee retires or leaves and the position is gone. The work stays but without the individuals to accomplish the duties of the department.

Keep in mind, these cuts for the most part aren’t impacting the wages and benefits of policy makers and politicians, but the individuals who provide the front-line services to the public — the folks who fix our roads, dispose of our garbage, prosecute and house criminals, sell license tabs and distribute building permits. They provide the most basic of public services, the things that make society work.

Through all of these sacrifices and cutbacks, local government workers are continuing to deliver efficient, personal service. We understand the need to do more with less. What we ask, however, is that our elected leaders acknowledge our sacrifices — working harder for less money — and engage in givebacks as well. Some elected officials have given up salary and benefits, curtailed reimbursements and expenditures, and taken other cost-cutting measures. But others resist, or engage in a double standard of protecting their budgets while willingly sacrificing others. When the Snohomish County sheriff writes a letter proposing additional furloughs for every county employee except those in his department, it sends a distressing signal throughout government and only perpetuates the widespread belief that politicians are only looking out for themselves.

As we enter another round of proposed cuts, we don’t want a thank you and a pat on the back — we want acknowledgement and a commitment to equitable and shared sacrifice. Local government workers have proven time and time again that we place public service first. We ask that our elected officials join us in communicating to the press and public that our employees are doing their part, that elected officials and managers are doing their part, and that the cuts to our families and members have an impact that goes beyond the loss of service.

Someday, the “Great Recession” will be over and we can begin to restore jobs and services — as well as wages and benefits — to hard-working employees across the state. By working together now, we can speed the recovery later.

Chris Dugovich is the president and executive director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees (AFSCME, AFL-CIO), based in Everett.