Twice this year the Kansas City Council decided to cave in to large unions and dole out bigger raises than once expected — first to firefighters and then to Local 500, representing many blue-collar workers.
Just call it business as usual at City Hall, even while politicians acknowledged they were going over budget.
City Council members like to sound tough but they often can’t stand up to pressure, especially from burly firefighters.
Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters represents its employees well. It has run over elected officials and taxpayers in the process for decades. That happened again in early 2016 as firefighters twisted the arms of council members to kowtow to their demands.
But when the police union and its employees all-too-predictably came calling for the same kind of wage treatment recently, Mayor Sly James and some council members initially pushed back before saying Thursday they would “work it out” with police in the future. (Disclosure: My son is a KCPD officer.)
There was some grand talk a few days ago by James — a member of the police board that oversees the department — and a few other council members that the city was strapped for cash. So, darn it, they had to hold the line on the five-year budget plan.
“We don’t pinch pennies when it comes to our city’s safety OR the value of those who protect and serve us,” said James.
Chief Darryl Forte posted a public blog post, talking about the need to treat police officers fairly and equitably. In other words, show us the money to show us you really do appreciate public safety.
Forte’s key point: “In an urban environment with high workloads, significant violent crime and intensive scrutiny, it can be difficult enough to retain high-quality officers and non-sworn staff. A financial plan that does not value police employees as much as employees of other city services has the potential to negatively impact police morale and employee retention.”
As I have chronicled for decades, both the police and fire unions have gotten away with excessive pay raises in the past. The worst period came in the 1990s when both unions got near-automatic 5 percent “bonus” pay raises for employees who basically stayed upright on the job. It was a heady time for City Hall when it came to having cash on hand.
Alas, those days didn’t last, and all of the pay raises given out in the past have cost taxpayers down the line.
Of course Kansas Citians want their public safety employees well paid. Police officers especially have a very tough job these days. But all of that financial love in the form of raises comes at a cost to residents.
The City Council eventually knuckled under earlier this year to the fire union and Local 500. It most likely will “find” the money necessary to keep police raises at the same general level as other employees.
That’s fair. It’s good news for city workers. But it also means elected officials may have to cut other city services. You just won’t hear much talk about how and when that happens.