Flexibility Vital In Contracts

Leaders of the unions representing municipal workers in Steubenville are upset about cost-cutting steps being taken by city Manager Cathy Davison. One, who heads the firefighters’ union local, insists the city is in violation of its contract with employees.

But Davison and other city officials appear to have no choice. They need to find ways to make massive cuts to keep the municipal budget balanced.

Twelve city employees were to receive layoff notices this week, Davison commented last week. In addition, two police department vacancies will not be filled. Finally, the city will not renew a grant program, resulting in layoffs of three firefighters in March.

Clearly, steps being taken to balance the budget will mean less service to Steubenville residents and businesses.

Unfortunately, it does not appear Davison and City Council can do anything about that. When the money runs out, it is gone.

As Chris Blackburn, president of the firefighters’ union local, noted, many Steubenville workers have agreed to contract concessions in the past, in efforts to help the city past rough spots in the fiscal road.

Through no fault of the employees, that does not appear to have solved the problem, however. City officials have no options other than major cuts in spending.

For decades, money was not a big problem in municipal government. But things have changed for local governments throughout Ohio. In East Ohio, the collapse of the steel industry has made it even more difficult for some towns and cities to make ends meet.

One change local officials will have to make is in the type of contracts they negotiate with employee unions.

Steubenville’s contract with the police officers’ union expires in May. The pact covering firefighters will have to be renegotiated within about a year. And a contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ends in March 2014.

As city officials prepare for talks on new contracts, they should insist on flexibility to meet unexpected budget woes such as the current ones. Municipal leaders simply must not lock Steubenville into contracts making it difficult or impossible to reduce spending when necessary.