There's a right way to handle tough budget decisions, and a wrong way. Last week, the city of Bingen flirted with doing things the wrong way, but a much wiser approach prevailed in the end.
At the Dec. 7 meeting of the Bingen City Council, the council was scheduled to vote on the 2005 budget. Unfortunately, the proposed budget contained changes that would have effectively taken money out of the pockets of the city's seven employees. Arbitrary changes in the staff's medical insurance packages had been recommended as a way to make up an $8,000 budget shortfall.
That's bad enough, but the employees just happened to hear about this proposal only days before the City Council was scheduled to vote on the new budget. No one sent a letter or made a phone call to directly inform the employees this action was being considered, even though it clearly and dramatically affect them.
That's clearly not the right way to handle workers. Someone -- and the buck stops with Mayor Brian Prigel -- needed to make sure the employees were informed about the proposal. After all, the council was about to make a decision that would effectively take between 60 cents and 80 cents per hour out of the paychecks.
That's wrong. Even if other jurisdictions or other employers have handled their employees that way, that doesn't make it a fair way to do business.
Each employee hired on at a certain level of pay and with certain benefits promised. It would be improper to change the rules on them -- and outrageous to consider making such a change when it would take effect as of Feb. 1, 2005. Obviously, the employees would have a hard time trying to adjust their own budgets with that little warning.
Health care is an emotional issue with a lot of people, and rightly so. If an employee is counting on a certain level of support through their insurance plan, he or she needs to have plenty of time -- a full year, preferably -- to deal with any major shifts in their health care coverage.
No one doubts that financial pressures are impacting cities and counties all across the nation, and sometimes tough decisions have to be made. But in the future, it would make a lot of sense to bring the employees into the budget process early, to see if they might be able to suggest ways to create savings so that reductions in their medical benefits would not even have to be considered.
Several city employees attended last week's council meeting to register their concerns. One employee, Mike Robarge, made a strong case on behalf of all the city's workers. His presentation to the council members in itself did the city proud. Robarge was obviously deeply concerned and unhappy about the proposed changes to the employees' compensation package, but he remained thoughtful and professional in offering his views. His demeanor served to reinforce the fact that Bingen has made solid choices in hiring over the years, and has a good team in place (and the same is true in White Salmon) that it needs to take care of.
In the end, Bingen's council members made a courageous decision. They came down on the side of fairness and voted to maintain the benefits of the employees as they now stand, at least through 2005.
To compensate, the Bingen City Council unanimously and voluntarily agreed to drop a supplemental insurance program that covers the council members and the mayor, thus saving the city about $3,600. This move showed that the council members were willing to take a personal hit rather than asking others to make the sacrifices, and the entire council deserves a lot of credit for taking that stand -- and for doing right by the city's employees.