Local government employees and the rest of us


I admit: When I heard Peachtree City Fire Chief Ed Eiswerth use the phrase,”Don’t balance the budget on the backs of the employees,” yet again in the closing minutes of the City Council’s Saturday retreat session, I was steamed enough to yell at the streaming video:

“So, you want to balance it on my back instead?”

Then, after the chief complained about no cost of living and merit raises — not cuts, mind you; raises! — in the city budget, he proceeded to drive his little red fire engine off the cliff, as far as I was concerned.

He blamed the citizens of Peachtree City for not accepting their responsibility to pay more taxes to provide continuing yearly salary raises and benefit increases for city employees.

Quick note to Chief Eiswerth: You insult your ultimate employer, the taxpaying citizens of Peachtree City.

Chief, if you made that speech to your boss in just about any struggling private company in this recession-blasted country, you would now be an ex-chief. In most any private company struggling to keep its doors open, you would be invited to take your cushy defined benefit plan and fade on into taxpayer-paid retirement — at the citizens’ expense.

The current City Council is being way too polite to say the following to all public employees: We the taxpayers don’t owe you a job, and we the taxpayers don’t owe you a raise.

Like the chief, I take layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and the like personally. Unlike the chief, I’ve actually had to lay off good, loyal employees, impose furlough days and freeze pay for the foreseeable future. Many of you private sector folks have had similar experiences, either on the dishing out side or on the receiving side of bad news.

It had absolutely nothing to do with their quality work or their individual goodness. It was an economic reality: Revenues have to match or exceed expenses, or else a private business loses money until bills can’t be paid and all employees lose their jobs.

Unlike the City Council, private businesses cannot unilaterally impose a tax on its customers to make up the difference. (It reinforces my growing conviction that one qualification for holding public office should be that the candidate has actually been responsible for making payroll for employees. Otherwise, it’s all just theory for the clueless candidate.)

Four cheers to Councilman Eric Imker for pointing out the obvious: The emperor has no clothes. The money ain’t there, and it likely ain’t gonna be there for several years to come. Mr. Imker, you are absolutely right to confront the status quo in local government.

The other four council members are beginning to seem clueless about economic realities. They need to be reminded who they work for. Clue: Council was elected to work for taxpayers.

A recent study showed a remarkable fact: Federal employees are the only ones with job security. They make way more money and have far more generous benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. Plus, it’s virtually a job for life — ever try firing a civil service worker, no matter how worthless he may be?

It turns out that much of the first “stimulus” money from the Obama administration was funneled to state governments to keep — guess who? — state workers from facing the same music the private sector was already facing.

Locally, we’ve already seen the incredible sense of entitlement some public employees have demonstrated in painful budget cuts in the school system.

And now we see that same sense of entitlement exemplified in Chief Eiswerth on behalf of city workers.

However, to be clear, I strongly believe that fire, EMS and police should be the last group of city employees to undergo layoffs. The typical bureaucratic tactic to combat any public employee layoffs is to cite what effect it would have on critical public safety workers.

That’s just bogus misdirection. What any conscientious city manager should do (and the military teaches such staff work well, as our current city manager should remember) is to draw up a list of priority employee positions, from most essential to least essential, then start suggesting cuts from the least essential end of the list.

That may sound harsh to city employees, but the fact of the matter is that some jobs are just more important to the public safety than others are. Let’s just recognize reality.

Hypothetically, you could mothball entire city departments without affecting public safety, the bottom line reason for having government in the first place. Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison and I all agree on that.

In good times, have the nice-to-have amenities. In bad times — the worst since the 1930s — cut the nonessentials in order to preserve the essentials. The state, to its credit, seems to to be coming to grips with that reality. Peachtree City seems to be a little behind the reality curve.

I disagree with Mayor Don Haddix that furloughs should be off the table in Peachtree City. He says the city is not like a private business, mainly because there are “citizen demands.”

I say provide the essential — public safety — via taxes, and let the other “demands” pay their own way via user fees.

There’s a bogus “property value” argument being made by some to justify raising taxes and keeping Peachtree City “special.” Have you tried to sell your house lately? How’s your “special” property value holding up? Do you think soccer fields and tennis centers and weekends at The Fred and better ISO ratings can overcome The Great Recession?

Arguing that the values would be worse without those things is specious and unprovable. Such an argument is nothing more than a spoiled pipe dream.

I agree completely with Mr. Imker: It’s time to deal with reality. Private sector taxpayers are a lot worse off than almost all government employees at all levels.

To demand that we battered taxpayers pay more property taxes to give already well-situated, well-paid and well-benefited public employees cost of living and merit raises — as the chief asserted — is not only an insult to the taxpayers, but an affront to common sense.

Climb down off your public yacht, chief, and join the vast rest us of here in this increasingly crowded and underfunded lifeboat trying to stay afloat on the choppy waters of reality.

You know, the rest of us? The ones without public paychecks, with jobs and without jobs, with health plans and without health plans, with dependent coverage and without dependent coverage, with pitifully depleted 401(k)s and without any retirement plans of any kind, with no raises of any amount for years now, merit or otherwise, nervously employed and grateful to just have a job, who pay for that entire city department.

Chief, I respectfully decline your demand that I pay more taxes for your raise. Be glad you don’t have to make payroll in private business in this economy. Raises are the last thing you would be worrying about.

And on behalf of a growing army of unemployed taxpayers, be grateful you have a job.