In these troubled times, government job is best

By the Herald editorial staff

In tough economic times, taxpayers ought to be able to count on elected officials and government employees to share in the sacrifice.

But from the Benton and Franklin county courthouses to the federal building to state offices to college campuses, the good times keep rolling.

As the year began, the nation's unemployment rate was at10 percent, with 15.3 million Americans out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

You'd think the recession might give pause to those who depend on the public's money.

But the number of federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more has jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent since the recession started, according to USA Today.

The growth in six-figure salaries pushed the average federal worker's pay to $71,206, compared with $40,331 in the private sector, the newspaper reported.

Sweet, but you don't have to be on the federal payroll to ride out the recession in style. Just about every level of government is doling out raises.

The state may be facing a$2.6 billion deficit, but more than 21,000 union employees aren't sharing the pain. They're scheduled to get step increases of up to 5 percent this year, according to The Olympian newspaper.

In all, state taxpayers are coughing up an extra $83 million for union workers. These raises aren't based on merit or tied to an increase in the cost of living, but simply on longevity.

Just this week, the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane reported that between January 2007 andJanuary 2009, the largest paychecks at Washington State University rose by nearly23 percent.

This year, with the university facing budget cuts of more than 10 percent, top WSU administrators chose to give back 5 percent of their pay.

That leaves plenty of money on the table, however.

In Benton County, elected officials received 2.6 percent raises in 2010, and about 70 percent of all county employees received 3.5 percent pay increases.

Only weeks ago, Benton County commissioners asked elected officials and department heads to cut $1.6 million from the county's budget. Most county departments took 2010 budget cuts of roughly 2 percent.

Across the river in Franklin County, commissioners received $2,000 raises this year and most employees got a raise, too.

Most Franklin County departments saw their 2010 budgets slashed by 9 percent, and commissioners cut 11 percent from their budget.

That means$1.5 million less to spend and 15 fewer staff positions, but as Herald reporter Kristi Pihl noted, the county's travel fund is safe, with $228,758 budgeted this year. Almost a third -- or $74,244 -- is earmarked for the commissioners' office.

You don't need the FBI to detect a pattern here. A combination of tighter budgets and bigger paychecks cuts across all parts of the public sector.

No doubt, some of the cuts in state and local governments can be made up through improved efficiencies, but there's no way to achieve all the reductions without affecting services.

Handing out raises to elected officials and government workers means even deeper cuts in services, since that money will have to be made up somewhere.

We've heard the excuses. Raises are the result of negotiations with public employee unions that occurred in better times. State law prohibits elected officials from adjusting their own pay.

Contracts can be renegotiated. In some cases, government leaders are finding union members are willing to forego raises if it means saving jobs and maintaining services.

In these tough economic times, pressing forward without even attempting to hold down labor costs is a luxury only the government can afford.

The idea that state law forces elected officials to accept pay raises is ludicrous. The ban exists to keep public servants from voting to fill their own pockets before voters have a chance to throw them out.

Yakima County commissioners got around the prohibition against altering their pay by simply writing personal checks to the county equal to their raises.

They haven't been arrested yet.