As a senior citizen with limited mobility, my best option to catch the Fairbanks city council meetings is to tune in to 970 AM to find out where all the fiat money is really going. This month’s city council meetings were more dramatic than any I’ve listened to in recent memory.
The preferential treatment demanded by two of the city’s public service unions was the catalyst for increased tension. In the case of the police department, limited staffing created a budget surplus of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the past, such surpluses have always been rolled back into the city’s budget to help pay for other things. At the 4 December council meeting, however, Resolution 4817 authorized the city to dispense a “Retention Bonus” with these funds. All officers received a bonus based on how many years they had been with the department. There were no prerequisites so even new recruits qualified. All in all, the bonus worked out to be around two percent of any given officer’s annual income. These salaries range between $130,000 and go up to $200,000 for the police chief.
The irony of issuing a bonus to a union currently suing the city was not lost on some members of the council. The retention bonus was in effect a 40-hour Christmas bonus that did nothing to normalize relations between the city and the police union. In fact, the police union has had no contact with the Fairbanks city council for years. The local taxpayer is of course being asked to pay the bonuses as well as any future liabilities this lawsuit might generate. Is this how the Fairbanks city council “protects” the taxpayer?
To add insult to injury, the operating budget proposed by the mayor included cutting two positions at the fire department so that the entire department could enjoy a four percent raise. Approximately ninety percent of the activity at the fire department revolves around ambulance services and requires mutual assistance agreements with surrounding jurisdictions. Does it benefit the taxpayer to have fewer firefighters with higher pay driving around in brand new equipment?
A last minute amendment avoided the proposed layoffs and unrealistic pay increases. It was argued that bonuses for the police, fire and dispatch unions were discriminatory and would ultimately lower morale in other departments that did not receive compensation adjustments. The councilwomen who passed the police retention bonus argued that the police and fire departments were important to public safety. They also referenced testimony by some newly hired fire department employees who stated that they might leave the city fire department if the council failed to approve a pay increase.
It would appear that the city is being held hostage by its public service unions. Yes, the fire and police departments are an important function of local government, but at what cost? What metrics do we as citizens have for measuring their performance? Fires get put out, people are transported to the hospital, criminals are arrested and then promptly let go by the district attorney and garbage is collected and transported to the landfill. Would a four percent raise make any of these things happen more quickly or thoroughly? Are we actually retaining individuals who want to make this community a better place to live or are we appeasing opportunists who are threatening a shutdown of basic city functions if they don’t get their way?
Let us hope that the mayor realizes that we are entering a severe budgetary crisis at the local, state and federal levels. His job is to make sure that our landing gear is down by cutting spending before the upcoming fiscal crash landing takes place. Currently, he’s just trying to be friends with everyone and that is of no benefit to anyone.