Sharing the pain

Dozens of Jackson County Sheriff's Department employees are waiting for the outcome of binding arbitration to find out whether they will still have jobs or whether their more senior colleagues will get raises. Once again, we are seeing public-sector workers insisting on pay increases despite declining revenue for the governments that employ them.

In the case of Jackson County, the layoffs are largely the result of an unexpected increase in payments the county must make to the Public Employee Retirement System — another legacy of public employee unions that is making it hard for state and local governments to make ends meet.

Jackson County is facing $4 million in PERS payments county officials hadn't anticipated. That, combined with declining property tax revenue from falling property values and shrinking state and federal revenues, leaves the county needing to reduce expenses. The biggest expense of any organization, public or private, is salaries and benefits.

Law enforcement officers have demanding, sometimes dangerous jobs. They deserve fair compensation — and pay raises when the county can afford them. But at the moment, it can't.

(Then there is this: Sheriff Mike Winters is quick to praise the quality of his deputies, but he manages to spend time and money hunting down marijuana growers and starring in a reality TV show about the drug industry. Meanwhile, he says budget cuts could mean the end of 24-hour patrols, which help keep rural county residents safe.)

At this point, the fate of the Sheriff's Department contract negotiations is out of the hands of either the union or the county. An arbitrator will decide which side prevails, and that decision will be binding on both parties. But the old model of union members sticking together to protect jobs — forgoing pay increases when necessary to avoid layoffs — appears to have been replaced by a new model under which senior employees hold out for raises while risking unemployment only for those hired in 2003 and later.

The union says it wants cost-of-living increases, which sounds reasonable, except that many private-sector workers also are coping with increased costs but have seen no pay raises because their industries are still struggling to recover from the recession.

County Administrator Danny Jordan stresses that it isn't just Sheriff's Department jobs that may be on the line. Depending on the outcome of the arbitration and on the outcome of the budget process now under way, employees of the District Attorney's Office and other county departments could be affected, too.

The county has done an admirable job of building up reserves, but that money has to last beyond just this year, or next year could bring even more severe cutbacks.

Public employees make valuable contributions to the community. But they must recognize that they are no more entitled to continually rising incomes than anyone else when the economy is flat.

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