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In Our View, Jan. 27: Welcome, Bart

Hansen joins Vancouver council just in time to confront massive 2010 budget woes

The Columbian
Published:

Bart Hansen’s first day on the job next week as a Vancouver city councilor likely will be more enjoyable than his second day. It won’t take long for him to realize the magnitude of the recession-ravaged financial crisis into which he ventures. City Manager Pat McDonnell quantified that severity in a Jan. 19 letter to the council, noting that the city is eliminating 65 to 75 positions starting this week. How much of that will be achieved by limited retirement incentives, layoffs and the elimination of vacant positions — and how much each department will be involved — will not be revealed until later. But already McDonnell says every department will be affected and up to 6.8 percent of the 1,100-person work force will be reduced. That will help budget writers overcome about 75 percent of an anticipated $6 million budget shortfall.

One of McDonnell’s comments was especially noteworthy: “A key component to solving that structural deficit will be a restructuring of the city’s total compensation strategy for its employees.” That’s the proper tone to set. In our view, “restructuring of the city’s total compensation” doesn’t mean layoffs or furloughs. Restructuring means exactly what it says.

Of course this is just talk right now and talk needs to move toward action if anything meaningful is to be done. But all governments — local, state and federal — need to look at this. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the gap between private and public total compensation is almost $12 an hour. And the gap is getting wider. We’re not sure how much longer the private sector (i.e. taxpayers) can continue to fund these public sector salaries. Let’s hope McDonnell’s words turn into action.

Last year, McDonnell said, the city eliminated 57 positions and froze 24 vacant jobs in response to a $15.5 million shortfall. That’s part of the strategy, but it’s the short-term approach. More progress could be made not by reducing hours worked or services rendered or programs offered, but by aligning public-sector pay and benefits with the private sector’s. McDonnell said nonunion and management employees are paying more of their own health care costs; he should find ways to transfer that sacrifice more powerfully into the several unions to which city workers belong. Minor concessions have been made by some local unions, but not enough when compared with nonunion workers and the private sector.

As for Hansen’s appointment to the council Monday night, it was the right choice. The Columbian endorsed Jack Burkman and Hansen in last year’s primary. Burkman ultimately won in the general election (Hansen was eliminated in the primary), and it was a classy move when Burkman changed his vote Monday night to give Hansen the four votes needed. Hansen, 35, brings a much-needed perspective to the council, that of a young, full-time worker and father of two children. Although Mayor Tim Leavitt is 39, he is not married and does not have children, and the rest of the council is at or near retirement age or with grown children.

So Hansen adds refreshing diversity to the council. Apparently the value of this escaped Councilor Jeanne Stewart who snipped: “It is apparent to me that Mr. Hansen does not have an accurate assessment of the time commitment it takes for council. It’s more critical than ever that people have time to study the issues.” We have two responses to such pettiness: First, how Hansen prioritizes his time is really none of Stewart’s business. He campaigned well last year, impressed the council in his interview and earned the job fair and square. Second, Stewart’s comment essentially was a clumsy proclamation: Young adults, don’t bother. We older people who have more time on our hands have everything under control.

Hansen’s joining the council helps douse such a narrow view.

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