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TOM KEANE

The defining issue of the mayor’s race

It’s nonsense to say that Boston can’t afford the $83 million pay hike a panel of arbitrators just awarded to the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union. With an annual budget of $2.6 billion, of course it can. Here’s how: Increase class sizes. Reduce the number of cops on the street. Stop twice-weekly trash pickups. Cut the parks department.

It’s choices like these that make this issue — a consequence of a bombshell decision that just came out last week — perhaps the issue of the city’s mayoral campaign. And it’s one that will hurt candidate Marty Walsh, feeding into worries that he is too beholden to city unions to be an effective mayor.

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The impact of the ruling is, in truth, devastating. Its 25.4 percent increase over six years is more than double the 12 percent increases that the administration and other unions had previously settled upon. But the effect of the award goes much further. Additional police unions are also about to enter into contract talks. The new raises set a precedent; they’ll hardly approve of anything less. Moreover, the firefighters’ contract, last resolved in 2010, is soon to come up again. The arbitrators have effectively boosted cops’ pay well above that of firefighters, meaning there will be calls for parity between the two. And civilian unions, including teachers, will doubtless see the agreement as a model for their own negotiations. With tit-for-tat escalating demands, says Sam Tyler, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, “This is like the Cold War.”

Both Connolly and Walsh have proffered grand plans for their administration. But Boston’s revenues grow slowly. A full 66 percent come from the property tax which (excluding new developments) can increase by only 2.5 percent a year. The second major source of revenue — state aid at 16 percent — is actually declining. Thus, big increases in labor costs leave little room for anything new.

Each of the two mayoral hopefuls appears to understand this. Walsh says the contract is “not in the best interest of the taxpayers.” John Connolly agrees, saying, “It would damage the city’s long-term fiscal health.” But both men, in fact, would go in utterly different directions.

As Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out on this page last week, part of the problem is mandatory arbitration itself, a foolish system that discourages honest bargaining between a municipality and its safety unions. (Civilian unions aren’t subject to mandatory bargaining, a distinction that really makes no sense.) Yet, thanks to 1980’s Proposition 2½, this version of arbitration is far better than what Massachusetts used to have — the governing bodies of municipalities and towns at least need to approve arbitrators’ rulings. Connolly — right now a member of the City Council — has said he would vote against the award. And it may well come to that; Menino has just 30 days to submit the matter to the council and it’ll be under pressure to act soon.

Coming as it does in the middle of a campaign, Connolly’s position is courageous. It’ll earn him the fury of cops and other safety unions, but it’s the right choice for the city.

The impact of the police salary arbitration ruling is, in truth, devastating.

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Walsh, on the other hand, would do away with the reforms from Proposition 2½. Legislation he’s sponsored, House Bill 2467, would make arbitration binding, cutting the City Council out of the process altogether. In effect, it would cede to arbitrators the city’s authority to manage its business. It is a curious position for a would-be mayor to take (one would think a mayor would want to hold on to power) but it is reflective of Walsh’s union sympathies. And indeed, aside from urging both sides to go back to the bargaining table, Walsh has offered up little to show what, as mayor, he would now do differently.

Connolly and Walsh have been typecast by some as two peas in a pod: smart, engaging, white Irish guys. But the arbitrators’ decision now makes stark the differences between them. Connolly quickly sided with the city’s residents. Walsh may yet, but his hesitancy speaks volumes.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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