As the Boston City Council votes today on an arbitrator’s award of a 25.4 percent raise over six years for patrolmen, the sole justification for this hefty increase is that it puts police pay back on par with that of firefighters. It’s a weak argument, because it fails to account for money police collect through overtime and paid details. But even a weak argument is enough for the politically powerful police union to bowl over enough politically timid city councilors. Many councilors, including council President Stephen Murphy, have been transparently searching for any reason to give the patrolmen what they want, a move that would cost the city tens of millions of dollars that could, for instance, eliminate the 3,000-child waiting list for pre-kindergarten in Boston schools.
The fig leaf seems to be this: Murphy is filing a home-rule petition that defines parity, between police and firefighters, as “base wages” — that is, as income that factors into a pension. Thus, councilors can argue that they’re putting an end to the old game in which firefighters demand huge increases because police make so much more in overtime and details, after which policemen demand equally huge increases on the grounds that overtime and details don’t count toward pensions.
To the extent that the city is going to use parity to set salaries, it makes sense to stick to one definition. But it’s hard to imagine that firefighters won’t fight to change Murphy’s definition when they negotiate their contract next year. There’s no guarantee that this home-rule petition will stop this runaway gravy train.
The bigger problem with Murphy’s petition is that it commits the city to uphold parity indefinitely — essentially mandating that when one union is given an excessive raise, the other must get it as well.
There’s no underlying justification for the idea that police and firefighters should be paid the same. They do wildly different jobs on completely different schedules, and require different skills and education. The city needs the flexibility to attract the right applicants with higher salaries for certain jobs without having to reward the entire public-safety bureaucracy in the process.
Parity took hold long before the advent of modern policing. New York City began paying police and firefighters the same wage in 1898; Boston has done so at least in some form since 1903. Back then, both the police and fire departments “were tapping into roughly the same pool of people who had the physical ability to do-high risk jobs and roughly the same levels of education,” explained Tom Kochan, a professor at MIT.
But the advent of forensic science, Miranda rights, and computerized investigative techniques have made most urban police officers’ jobs far more complicated. Meanwhile, city firefighters’ jobs have evolved as well, but not necessarily in the same direction; innovations — such as more flame-resistant building materials and the widespread use of electricity — have dramatically reduced the number and severity of fires.
Parity has long made it harder for cities to adapt to new circumstances. In the 1960s, amid widespread unrest, many big cities found it difficult to recruit and retain police officers. It made sense to pay police more. But cities that tried to do so came to regret it, because firefighters demanded the same wage. Meanwhile, there are communities that battle wild fires but suffer from little crime, such as Black Forest, Colo., and Prescott, Ariz. In those cities, common sense dictates that firefighters should earn more.
Rather than cling to the outdated and fiscally dangerous idea of parity, Boston ought to revamp the way that salaries for all public employees are set. The pay levels of comparable professions and those of taxpayers ought to be factored in. For instance, the governor’s salary has a baseline of $140,535, but rises and falls according to the median income in the state. As long as police and firefighters’ pay is divorced from every other factor than what the other is getting, both of these honorable professions risk alienating the people they serve.