Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Would you like a job for $126 per hour?

Then become a crossing guard in Warwick! Ok, you won't actually make that much, but the city will be spending that much on you, according to Edward Achorn in today's ProJo. And to show just how much power the public employee unions have in this state, Warwick Mayor Scott Avidesian is actually happy (though "relieved" may be the proper term) to have struck such a deal. Here are the particulars, according to Achorn's piece:

1) The guards will trim back their force from 28 to 23.
2) They will give up their $310 clothing allowance.
3) Guards hired in the future will have to pay 10 percent of their health-insurance premiums
4) Taxpayers will save a three-year total of $200,000 over the previous contract.

Wow, that was pretty nice of the union...so how come I don't feel satisfied. As Achorn says:

". . . I find myself questioning the very premise of lavishly rewarding crossing guards with our limited resources. This is not because I don't love crossing guards. It's because I place a higher priority on repairing school buildings, replacing outdated textbooks, exposing children to art and music, and helping the neediest in our society. And it's because I can recognize that dollars come from real people. High taxes in Rhode Island do more than drive off business development and force young people to look for jobs elsewhere; they make it hard for most of us to make ends meet."

Here's what the crossing guards "settled for," again, from Achorn's Piece:

1) The health insurance co-pay (#3, above) applies only to hires after July 1, 2003. Those hired before will continue to receive free health insurance.
2) The City of Warwick will pay into the union's legal fund.
3) Guards receive 9 paid holidays and 10 paid sick days per year, with the ability to accumulate and cash in the latter.
4) The city's contribution to the guards' pension fund will rise from about $26,000 to $34,000 a year in 2005.
5) Warwick pays for a "Medigap" policy for retirees, giving them extra protection after they start receiving Medicare.

The Result? "Warwick is spending an average of $128 per hour per crossing guard. That's more per guard than Cranston is paying under its existing, absurdly plush contract."

Why did Mayor Avedesian feel like this was such a good deal? Achorn hypothesizes that since a similar situation in Cranston led to the demonization of Mayor Laffey and legal battles, it was probably cheaper and more politically amenable to receive limited concessions and proclaim a deal than to really take on the union over these jobs. As Achorn says: "It is easier for a public leader to be 'realistic,' to fine-tune the degree of mutual back scratching, than to step back and ask: Is this the best we can do for our state and, especially, for our children?"

That these are unionized jobs is ridiculous in the extreme, to begin with. These should cost $128/week, not per hour. I never thought that you could have a career as a crossing guard. It really sounds like a bad joke, but we've already established this as the norm and are left with a situation of having to either negotiate with them or endure the threat of a legal battle should we decide to not negotiate. The practical approach, as suggested by Achorn, and to me is obvious, would be to put these jobs up to bid by private contractors.

I have nothing against these crossing guards. Heck, I can see why they'd want such a plum job. Yet, this is Rhode Island in a nutshell, isn't it folks? We all can see the outrage of paying people this kind of money, our tax dollars, for helping the kids cross the street. But the problem lies in that, here in this little state, the local impact of such matters can lead to difficult, tense situations. After all, that local crossing guard is so-and-so who lives down the street and how can I be so mean as to begrudge him his living. Everyone does know everyone else and are naturally reticent to do wrong by their neighbor.

There are a disproportionate amount of people in this state who work for the state (or city) or know those who do. Any attempt to reduce the size of government naturally affects a certain amount of a states citizenry. In Rhode Island, this would probably be a proportionally larger amount than in most other states. After all, the biggest business in Rhode Island is government. Given this, change is difficult. Governor Carcieri is touring the state trying to wake up the residents, and politicians, to the fact that money doesn't grow on trees. We have to stop spending on such ridiculous luxuries as crossing guards with medical plans and vacation time. We have to support our Governor and those politicians who will stand up to the proponents of the the "business as usual" mindset. We have to support those who would and do stand up to these forces, such as Cranston's Mayor Laffey. Most of all, we have to try to change the attitude of our fellow Rhode Islanders away from "that's just the way it is" to "it doesn't have to be like this." It's difficult and all such efforts to this point seem to have produced marginal results at best. But the cause is just, as they say, and I intend to keep on fighting. Maybe this is a quixotic battle, but it is worth fighting, nonetheless.

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