Measure Public-Sector Compensation With Private-Sector Benchmarks


Once, just once, we’d like to see somebody, A-N-Y-B-O-D-Y, in a management position within one of our four main local governmental bodies actually offer something insightful and constructive about how to compensate their – or, more correctly, OUR – public employees.

And we don’t mean by simply increasing the previous year’s pay by the cost of living, or by some arbitrary percentage.

Heck, we’d even offer a trophy for the accomplishment, something at least as tall, shiny and expensive as those silly faux self-esteem “participation” trophies given to kids just for showing up – or sometimes even just for signing up – for a sport or activity.

Unfortunately, City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton won’t be winning any trophy this year, judging by his “Compensation Study” dated June 23, 2014 – the basic premise of which is that the best way to determine fair and reasonable compensation for our public employees is to look at what other communities are paying their public employees.

That kind of thinking is seriously flawed because it assumes three key facts not in evidence: (1) that what other communities are paying their employees actually is fair and reasonable for those communities, rather than inflated amounts; (2) assuming it is, that the job duties and conditions of specific positions in those other communities are directly comparable to specific positions in our community; and (3), assuming they are, that such “comparable” compensation is fair, reasonable and affordable for our community and its taxpayers.

Interestingly enough, Hamilton’s Agenda Cover Memorandum suggests that his own study fails to satisfy all three of those criteria, as he writes:

“Not all the communities [in the study] are of similar size, nor would each community be considered comparable to our City. In addition, employees with similar job titles do not necessarily perform the same duties and may be treated differently for overtime purposes in some instances.”

So what’s the point, Shawn? Did you set up that compensation study as one of your goals for this just-concluded fiscal year, and then figured you had to provide some kind of deliverable no matter how worthless it might actually be?

Setting appropriate public employee compensation has become more difficult in the past decade or two, as the membership and power of public-sector unions has far outstripped that of their private-sector counterparts. The union-directed wages and benefits also have trickled down to the non-union employees, who seem to keep getting raises for nothing more than holding their jobs for another year – as do their counterparts in neighboring communities, presumably because all the bureaucrats managing those staffs sing from the same hymnal.

Which is why the idea of basing what we pay on what other communities pay is just plain foolish.

First of all, does anybody but our own public employees think they are being paid too little and/or receiving too few benefits?  If so, can you identify the City (or D-64, or D-207, or Park District) employees who have voluntarily left their employment here to accept a comparable position in any of those neighboring communities – and by “neighboring” we mean the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area?

We can’t think of many. In fact, we can’t think of ANY.

Second, the pay and benefits our community offers its public employees should be viewed in light of the fact that when any public-sector jobs open up here, there reportedly are far more than enough quality applicants, especially for police and fire jobs.

And why not? Not only is the pay good, but the work isn’t all that difficult or dangerous, relatively speaking. For example, our police don’t have to ride herd on groups of gang-bangers shooting it out every Saturday night in front of the Pickwick, or play real-life Grand Theft Auto; and with no building other than Lutheran General topping 5-stories, firemen don’t have to worry about battling prospective Towering Infernos.

That’s not meant to disrespect either department but, rather, to highlight how fortunate we (and they) are to be living and/or working in such a safe and affluent community – one where the crime rate actually keeps dropping to the point where Location, Inc., a leading location-based data and risk analysis firm, last year ranked Park Ridge the 72nd-safest community in the nation, based on the number of reported property crimes and violent crimes per 1,000 residents in 2011.

In light of these happy facts, we have a suggestion for Mr. Hamilton:

Instead of wasting time studying what neighboring communities pay their employees, try studying what it would cost the City to outsource as many of these services as possible. And once you’ve done that, correlate those costs with the fully-loaded (i.e., including the costs of pensions, sick days, vacation days, uniform allowances, etc.) costs of the City’s in-house people who currently provide those services, to determine what the economic differential is between in-house and out-sourced.

We can’t find anything in the Illinois statutes, or in the City Code, that requires all of these services to be performed by City employees.  So with the Uptown TIF albatross chained around the City’s neck for at least another 11 years, multi-millions of dollars of flood remediation to be done, and the recent report that Park Ridge’s collective property value has dropped 17.8%, all City costs need to be put on the table if our community is to stay afloat financially without extremely painful tax increases.

That’s why the “this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” management style of years gone by no longer cuts it. If City taxpayers can’t get the best price AND the best value from the current system of in-house public employee staffs, then it’s time to look at private-sector alternatives.

Maybe exploring the private-sector option will show that we’re already getting a bargain from our public employees.  Maybe not.  But it’s time for an outside-the-box approach to what has become a chronic problem of ever-increasing personnel costs with no end in sight.

And if our $155,000/year City Mgr. – who just happens to be the third lowest-paid city/village manager on his list of 27 comparable communities – can’t figure that out on his own, then it’s high time the Mayor and City Council told him so.

In no uncertain terms.

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