I have not met nearly all the people employed by Peachtree City, but those I do know care deeply about their job and wear a bit of pride on their sleeve for their role in a city they believe is special. I believe that, too, and I also believe we are making a double-dip mistake in the public discourse about staff cuts to solve our budget crisis.
I’m going to pick on City Council member Eric Imker here to make a point, and I admit I’m being a little unfair to him to make my point. I have not met or talked to Mr. Imker personally, only read his quotes in the local paper and related blogs, but maybe it’s time a citizen like me erred on the side of Peachtree City employees in the current budget debate.
First, it was not hard to like Mr. Imker’s hard line in last year’s election campaign about budgetary discipline in hard times.
Not long ago I wrote a column here about governments at all levels taking on a life of their own with an imperative of grow-grow-grow by adding ever more services with do-good eagerness, resulting in too much intrusion into our lives and digging too deep into our pockets.
When times are good and tax and fee revenue is up, governments at all levels tend to expand, and only when the inevitable business cycle turns upside down are governments forced to trim the fat.
Sometimes, well, a lot of times, governments dig in their heels pretty hard to resist trimming the fat because that is human nature.
Those are very strong arguments on Mr. Imker’s side of the ledger when he argued against raising taxes and against using the city’s reserves, and instead using budget cuts to solve the looming deficit problem.
Now Peachtree City has a sizable deficit forecast for next year, a painful result of the recession and unwise City Council decisions in the past. It is only fair to remember, though, that then and current City Council members Don Haddix and Doug Sturbaum tried to close the future budget gap and were voted down.
In last year’s election campaign, Mr. Imker successfully made his case with the voters there is no need for a tax increase, no need to dip into reserves, because he knows how to spell b-u-d-g-e-t and would find the fat to trim, which sounds good to the rest of us because, well, you know how governments are loathe to trim the fat.
But once on the job Mr. Imker discovered what many informed people already knew and had tried to tell him, that the looming budget hole is deep and the fat has already been trimmed.
Now Peachtree City has to decide whether to cut out muscle and bone, thereby reducing services, or raise taxes, or a combination. There are no easy decisions, especially if you look at the larger picture.
Fayette County and the state of Georgia have the same budget problems and may themselves raise our taxes. Federal taxes are going up, too. President Obama’s federal government has added 55,000 employees, the only growth industry I know of right now, your stimulus dollars at work right through the rest of their working and retirement lives.
The business sector has cut back and, by my observation, remains hunkered down in a wait mode to see what new taxes, fees and regulations are coming from Washington. My guess is small business, which creates 80 percent of America’s jobs, will remain hunkered while this president is in office.
You can argue with my political view, but if I am right, our city budget problem is not only serious but will be for an extended period. Maybe the result will be further cuts in city staff, I don’t know.
When Mr. Imker realized the same budget hole that others had been trying to tell him about all along – holy cow! – he first declared the city has too many employees without studying in detail the staff, duties and services. Then, skipping over some other unwise statements, he indicated recently if city employees don’t like further cuts maybe they should step aside because there are plenty of people looking for jobs.
Which even if crude might be true if our city employees were fungible widgets, easily replaced by the next person in line with an employment application.
But as any good manager knows, the best employees, well trained, experienced and dedicated to their job, are hard to find, not easy to replace.
Many years ago I worked for an organization whose recruiting slogan was, “Eagles don’t flock, you find them one at a time,” a reminder that hiring and training good people takes considerable time and effort.
If you believe, as I do, that Peachtree City employees represent us well, maybe you will agree that while we publicly debate the fate of their paycheck, the very least they deserve is that we treat the matter carefully and seriously, with the knowledge that jobs cut today might mean they are gone forever, or that rebuilding later may be difficult.
While we know decisions have to be made on the basis of what is essential to the city and what can be paid for, not compassion for the employee, as citizens we should bear in mind the people we expect to work hard on our behalf every day have already taken considerable pay cuts as the city shifted to them more of the cost of employee benefits, and annual raises were taken off the table.
I wonder how well you and I would keep up our morale at the office while our pay was cut and our performance was publicly derided as expendable.
Treating Peachtree City employees as easily replaceable widgets is a disservice to them, and may not be very smart if we make job cut decisions without recognizing valuable human resources that may be difficult and costly to later replace. That is doubly unwise.
I’m a believer in keeping government lean. But I hope Mr. Imker recognizes that if staff cuts are necessary, they should done thoughtfully, not by the jerk of a knee, and carefully, with a scalpel and not a blunderbuss.
I also am a believer that good work should be rewarded. When prosperity returns, maybe we’ll have the decency to give the remaining employees of Peachtree City the nice raise they deserve, and it wouldn’t hurt to raise the City Council pay to a level above the current measly amount they receive. Here’s hoping in that case we are not getting what we pay for.
[Peachtree City resident Terry Garlock writes opinion columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]