IF BOSTON VOTERS want to assess the mettle of the City Council, nothing will reveal more than how the 13 councilors handle an arbitration panel’s unaffordable award to an unreasonable firefighters’ union. Upcoming council hearings on the issue should clear up some details — for instance, will the raise of 19 percent over four years cost the city $74 million, as Mayor Menino estimates, or $39 million, as per the chief arbitrator? But the underlying problem is already clear: At a time when Boston is trimming services and asking taxpayers to pay more, the award pays each Boston firefighter an average of more than $2,000 a year just to show up to work clean and sober.
Only the council can stop this. City councilors — especially the 11 who received the endorsement of Firefighters Local 718 last year — need to put aside their fears of political retribution. Whatever the consequences of breaking an ill-advised promise to one entrenched interest group, breaking trust with an entire city is far worse.
In recent years, firefighters have shattered the confidence of the public through drug and alcohol abuse. A key question in the arbitration was whether firefighters should be paid for submitting to testing. The arbitrator’s award, which exceeds both the Menino administration’s already generous offer and those agreed to by other city unions, unduly rewards firefighters for accepting on-the-job testing.
Councilors must consider how the city will fare if the firefighters’ contract becomes the baseline for upcoming negotiations with police and teachers, who settled for a 14 percent hike over the same period — a time in which few private-sector workers were so richly compensated. If future police and teacher contracts were to end in a 19 percent raise, taxpayers would be on the hook for an additional $32.6 million annually, according to the city.
The money for these contracts wouldn’t come out of thin air. While Boston raised its property tax rate late last year, the revenues are already spoken for. Libraries are slated to close. Community centers will be required to cut costs. School custodians are being shown the door. Where should the city turn to fund a firefighter contract beyond the limited reserves set aside for collective bargaining? By next week, Menino will offer a plan to accommodate the award. But all the options are disturbing. Will he cancel the new firefighter class? Close fire stations? Slash other city services to pad the checks of firefighters?
Respect for organized labor runs deep in Boston, and on the Boston City Council. In this case, though, the interests of Firefighters Local 718 are in direct opposition to the needs of the city as a whole. The council’s work is often overshadowed by Boston’s strong mayor form of government. But all eyes are on the council now.