If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.
To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.
Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.
My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.
Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.
The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.
As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.
Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.
In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.
I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.
The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.
When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.
Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.
Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.
The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.
We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond. By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.
Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.
If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.