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.
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.
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