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Government Watch: The public sector needs fixing

Published: Sun, April 24, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Tax-funded wages work their way into my house every week.

Specifically, my wife is a teacher by trade and currently has part-time work in Poland schools.

So I get government work. I get teacher jobs.

Last week, we launched Government Watch on Vindy.com in response to the immense scrutiny that government spending — from schools to counties to the state and beyond — faces in our tough economy.

The response had been what you would expect:

Joy from many readers whom I assume are private citizens:

“Hope I’m not going overboard in my praise for what you’re doing, but I’m so happy with the work you have done lately. It takes a lot of courage to upset the status quo.”

Anger from government workers:

“The more of you I read, the more I wonder if you are conducting in-depth reporting or a good ol’ fashioned witch hunt.”

And kind of in the middle:

“I’ve worked for state government for about 13 years. I’ve learned a lot on how government works. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of your opinions, I think what you’re doing is important and of value to the community.”

Our steps in Government Watch are unique for us. We have targeted as a base goal to publish the five-year spending and salary histories of key agencies.

We’re starting with the most pertinent towns and schools to our readership, and will slowly grow it.

While various websites around the state publish this very same data on these very same workers, it’s more local when your hometown newspaper does it. One teacher whose salary was posted said she felt violated.

It indeed is personal, but so too are the dollars that government agencies keep taking for operations.

I honestly believe that the bulk of government workers — 80 percent or more — are doing the right job and are properly paid or are underpaid.

But there is a dominant contingent of government workers, namely top managers and union leaders, who set the rules, negotiate the plans and watch the money — and they’re not doing it with enough respect to taxpayers.

When Coca-Cola wants to enrich itself, it creates a new product.

When government wants to enrich itself, it creates a new tax.

One works; one model is broken.

There are many examples to note, but quickly and locally (and in addition to the Mahoning County steps that have been reported in recent weeks):

Former Youngstown State University President David Sweet wanted public funds to buy his home as he retired, and he cashed in on 400 hours in unused sick time.

Former Youngstown schools boss Wendy Webb had a pleasant unused sick-time cash-out as well that pushed her going-away check to more than $100,000 in taxpayer funds.

And just two weeks ago, an already in-debt Liberty Township had to sign off on pay raises as high as 5 percent to police and fire staff. Top fire bosses there will get 11 percent pay boosts during the next three years.

How can that be rationalized? Sadly, they do rationalize it.

Just for a second, ponder being seated in the Liberty Township negotiations.

Liberty’s road workers just agreed to no raises for three years.

Amid such a climate, it would have taken a lot of gall and crassness to sign off on such a plan even if Liberty had $1 million in surpluses. I can’t find the words about such a deal for a township that can’t even make budget and where other workers accepted no raises.

And that’s where our role comes in — as uncomfortable as it is at work and at home.

I feel for the 80 percent or so.

But you’re in an industry that needs fixing.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.

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