Public workers’ compensation is a tough sell in private sector

Trumbull County Commission- er Paul Heltzel was on the mark with this characterization of the bonus given to the regional airport’s top man: “It sticks out like a sore thumb.”

It did — until Dan Dickten, aviation director for the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, decided to turn down the $7,000 bonus.

Dickten’s decision came after Heltzel and his fellow commissioners, Dan Polivka and Frank Fuda, reduced the bed tax earmarked for the airport’s operation.

The commissioners made no secret of the fact that their action was prompted by the bonus granted by the Western Reserve Port Authority, the governing body of the regional airport.

Heltzel, Polivka and Fuda noted that county government employees have gone without a raise of any kind for three years. There’s no doubt that granting a compensation boost to one public employee makes it difficult for the commissioners to ask other workers to accept pay freezes or to make concessions.

Dickten’s decision not to accept the $7,000 is to be praised because it not only demonstrates an understanding of the public’s growing aversion to government employees’ salaries and benefits, but it enables the commissioners to revisit the bed tax allocation for the airport.

“I’d say, under the circumstances, it looks favorable that we would open it back up,” Heltzel said of the bed tax, which was reduced from 5 percent to 4 percent.

It is no fiction that when it comes to pay raises and other boosts in compensation, public employees embrace a simple philosophy: “Me too.”

Case in point: Last year, Youngstown State University’s president and board of trustees, in the midst of labor unrest on campus, approved a three-year contract for the faculty with no pay increases in the first and second years and a 2 percent raise in the third year.

The other unions on campus representing classified employees, police and professional and administrative staff tailored their demands to what the faculty was granted and will be granted in the next three-year contract.

To be sure, YSU’s employees have had to make concessions on health care premiums and other workplace practices, but the fact remains that pay increases in the midst of a national economic recession are an anomaly.

We opposed the three-year labor agreements reached with the faculty and classified employees unions and warned that the others would not settle for anything less. We also warned that YSU, with its deteriorating financial condition as a result of a reduction in state funding and a decline in student enrollment, would have a difficult time covering the costs of the labor contracts.

Close vote

That reality was reflected in last week’s 5-4 vote by the trustees on the contract with the Association of Professional/Administrative Staff. The pact calls for no pay raise in the first year, a 2 percent in the second year and a “me too” clause with the faculty in the third year.

Recently, YSU President Cynthia Anderson conceded that the fall enrollment will be lower than the enrollment in the 2010 fall semester, which means the university will be pulling in less revenue.

During last year’s negotiations with the faculty and classified employees unions, we recommended a year-to-year pact with no raises until YSUs financial situation was stabilized. Our recommendation was ignored.

Instead, the president and trustees decided to increase tuition yet again, which is contributing to the lower enrollment.

At some point, the public sector is going to have to face what has become reality for private sector employees: Having and keeping a job these days may be as good as it gets.

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