THE ISSUE: Streator official responds to arbitrator's decision
OUR VIEW: A win for police can’t be all bad for city’s residents
Municipal government is, like most things, a matter of perspective. And so it is we consider a written statement from Streator City Manager Scot Wrighton concerning a recent arbitration decision that went against the city and in favor of its police union.
“The city acknowledges that this decision is a win for the local police union, but it is not a win for local taxpayers,” Wrighton wrote late last week.
Illinois Labor Relations Board arbitrator Edwin H. Benn looked at five disputes between the city and police officers and ultimately awarded a 2 percent wage increase from May 1, 2017, to Jan. 1, 2018, a 2.25 percent increase in 2018, and a 2.5 percent increase in 2019 — totaling a 6.75 percent increase. The increases are retroactive, which means the city will cough up back pay.
For its part, the city proposed a 1 percent wage increase from May 1, 2017, to Oct. 1, 2017, and a 2 percent increase from Oct. 1, 2017, to Oct. 1, 2018 — totaling a 5 percent hike. Still a raise, but more modest and therefore less of a strain on the municipal budget.
Benn noted cost-of-living factors favored the union, which makes sense. While housing costs might be somewhat fixed for a lot of folks, grocery, utility and property tax bills aren’t likely to stagnate. And the union members will start paying 17 percent of their health insurance premiums instead of 15 percent, which is going to affect take-home pay.
“The arbitrator accepted the city’s premise that it cannot sustain the salary increments demanded by the police union — but then said that future budget shortfalls and high tax burdens created by the arbitrator’s ruling was a ‘political decision’ outside of his purview,” Wrighton wrote. “In short, the local consequences of his rulings are irrelevant to him.”
This is where perspective comes into play. Benn’s decision distinguished between whether the city can afford to pay the salaries as is, whereas Wrighton is focused on the long-term effects. The local consequences could indeed be challenging. Already the city will have to dip into reserves to cover the financial impact of the arbitration, and Streator continues to struggle with its own cost-of-doing-business increases. Wrighton predicts a continued population drop and an attendant increase in the general fund deficit.
But even if that outcome is likely, it isn’t guaranteed.
Consider the local consequences of the arbitrator siding with the city. If police union members feel they’re getting underpaid when the city can afford to meet their requests, that might breed a degree of resentment that could lead to further contentious negotiations, and it might provide incentive for quality officers to seek better jobs outside of Streator. That’s not a win for residents, who happen to be the taxpayers Wrighton is working to protect.
And both sides could fairly look to the state as a source of blame, given that lawmakers and governors have done a poor job of managing public pensions over many years and generally save their own skin by shuffling the actual impact of solving the problems to local governments.
Wrighton’s comments weren’t incorrect — paying police officers more than originally budgeted will have an effect on the overall budget — but for a community that so strongly supports its law enforcement community, it’s important to remember these folks aren’t seen as generic uniformed union members, but the beating heart of public safety, officers who care deeply for their city and its people.
In a sign of good faith, Wrighton took an optimistic bent when noting arbitration helped move the union away from more expensive requests and further said the city and police are working together to explore ways to deliver quality protection as efficiently as possible, including using part-time and community service officers. We’ll continue to report on those developments.
Wrighton ended his statement by noting the city will adopt the arbitrator’s decision, implement the changes in good faith and consider the matter closed. That’s a very professional and forward-thinking statement, and we truly hope this does lead to better days in Streator, for everyone.