Are unpaid furloughs of city employees a good idea? Probably.
Facing a $10 million deficit to close out 2008, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has suggested that non-essential city workers be furloughed the day after Thanksgiving, the day after Christmas and New Year's Eve. I don't believe closing the city on these days will have a negative impact on operations or citizens since most people aren't looking to do business with public entities on those days anyway.
But I have two problems with the plan. One is that it won't address as much of the budget problems as many think and, two, when given a choice between implementing this idea the right way or the wrong way, Carty chose poorly.
First, this is presented as a way to save around $1 million. But the devil is in the details and only $300,000 of those savings would come from the general fund. It's the general fund that's short - not all the other accounts. And since Carty chose poorly in implementing this, it could actually cost the city money.
The city has contracts with its union employees. Regardless of whether or not you like those contracts, whether or not you think those contracts need to be modified, whether or not you like or want public unions, regardless.... the city has signed an agreement and that agreement needs to be honored or changed through the proper methods.
Once you've got an agreement that both sides have ratified, you've agreed upon the terms for laying off people and both sides have an obligation to follow that process. Side agreements can be negotiated, and often are when there are one-time, unique circumstances to be addressed. Carty certainly could have embarked upon that process for this instance, especially considering the budget concerns. He might even have gotten MORE as a result.
But, again, he chose poorly, failing to follow the procedures the city had agreed to and now he finds himself defending his lack of adherence to the contracts in court.
That's where his choice will probably cost taxpayers - in the legal battle that didn't have to happen. Yesterday AFSCME and Teamsters unions filed motions for a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions to keep the city from implementing the furloughs. They took this step because the city didn't follow the contract regarding work schedules and layoffs - and didn't submit the issue to arbitration as the contracts dictate. The unions and city met for several hours with Judge Gene Zmuda, who was assigned to the case, and will be back with judge on Friday. The hope is that they will reach agreement on the matter so court action won't be required. We'll see.
In the meantime, the city continues to spend money it doesn't have to: Erie Street Market subsidies, COSI subsidies of utilities, subscriptions to periodicals...all of which would easily offset the $300,000 projected savings from the layoffs.
It's a matter of priorities - and our elected officials don't have any, otherwise, we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.