In October, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that city employees will be taking three days off during the holidays for the next two years, a move that will save 225 jobs. His efforts to alleviate a $470 million budget shortfall are neither new nor unusual; cities all over the country are doing at least that much to satisfy balanced-budget mandates.
But are furloughs a reasonable way to meet this goal?
That's the question we posed in a recent “quick-poll,” a simple yes-or-no question posted to the home page of the PUBLIC WORKS Web site. Responses are anonymous, so respondents are free to speak freely.
The consensus was that furloughs are reasonable — if all other options have been explored, if elected officials are willing to sacrifice as well, and if the city hasn't already eliminated frivolous services. The following is a compendium of respondents' thoughts on this issue.
First, call a spade a spade: A furlough is a pay cut, and the consequences extend beyond the community's initial cost-savings.
“It's always the worker bees who take the hit.” Lower-paid employees live from paycheck to paycheck, and missing a day's pay hurts significantly: “Not paying employees won't help them pay their bills, furthering financial problems.” Also, “cutting pay erodes morale because it sends the message that the city's most valuable resource is expendable, even if temporarily.” And it compromises service. “Any time you stop people from doing their jobs, it makes for a more expensive job in the future.”
Second, there is waste in government, just as there is in the private sector.
“Many communities have expanded public services far beyond essential levels and have room to cut back.” A prime example is leaf collection, “the most public spoiled service an agency can provide.” Police, fire, and other emergency services could be consolidated through better mutual aid agreements; water, sewer, and waste management could be consolidated to eliminate overhead. “Long-range reduction in service is uncomfortable but possible.”
Third, are the decision-makers also accepting wage reductions? Furloughs are better than layoffs, but they're fair only if they're across the board. “Someone should create an oversight committee to check elected officials for political gain the same way we're going to check our corporations and their executives.”
Finally, how about letting the folks who actually do the work participate in the decision-making process? “We formed a committee of blue-collar workers to evaluate efficiencies and waste to help management craft the least painful way to make budget adjustments.”
Now there's a revolutionary concept! But it doesn't surprise me. It's just another example of the quick-thinking problem-solving skills public works employees at all levels — managerial and rank-and-file — apply to their work every day.
To those who took the time to share their thoughts: thank you. If there's a question you'd like us to pose, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. And best wishes for safe and happy holidays.