The wage freeze on Buffalo city employees hadn't been lifted for more than a day when its cost to the taxpayer grew by about 158 percent. After another day, it shot up by yet another 400 percent-plus. That's the difference between the $850,000 a year it will cost to give city workers a one-step raise (a move approved Tuesday by the city's fiscal control board), the $2.2 million annual cost of making all employees whole for three years of missed raises (as proposed Wednesday by Mayor Byron W. Brown) or $9.9 million (claimed as a right by the police officers union Thursday).
Those are the sort of surprise hidden costs -- like finding out that the bargain computer you just bought really needs expensive modifications in order to work as advertised -- that brought the city under control board supervision in the first place. Whether the mayor's new plan or the union's latest demand are as affordable as their advocates claim, and so ripe for approval, or whether either is some kind of expensive bait-and-switch, is what the control board is there to determine.
The ultimate decision, though, rests with Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer. So far, the governor has said that "until the city and its public-employee unions have reached accord on fair and affordable long-term contracts, the discipline of (control board) oversight is necessary to ensure the continuing improvement in the city's fiscal condition." That deals with the immediate future, but Spitzer will have to become more involved and emphatic as this debate continues.
Spitzer was asked by reporters early in his race whether the governor who would show up in Albany would be the one who promised to address the many ills that have shrunk the state's fortunes, or the one who was avidly supported by unions and fellow politicians.
In the Buffalo debate so far, the stage has been dominated by major union leaders such as Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore and Police Benevolent Association President Robert Meegan, who want every past wage hike restored, and Brown, who wants those hikes restored and more. All want the control board to go away. That's no surprise -- the board has kept the union leaders from getting all they can for their members, which is their job, and the mayor from managing city finances without someone saying yes or no.
What the control board is legally mandated to rule on is simply whether the city can afford the catch-up pay hikes. The argument that the employees need or deserve the money -- a compelling one given how the price of everything else has gone up during the three years of frozen pay -- isn't supposed to enter into it.
And, in a further complication, the New York State Legislature would have to allow the control board to sever city wage issues from those of the school district that, district officials say, flat cannot afford the same kind of makeup raises being sought for city workers.
The debate affects city employees, but it also affects a much larger group -- the citizens who pay the bills. They are dependent upon the state-appointed control board and have first claim on the politicians they elected. Control board members have delivered an invaluable service, devoting long volunteer hours despite verbal abuse and home picketing. The politicians have been pushed by unions that have not been timid in demanding the increases to which they believe they are entitled. That may continue until Spitzer decides which governor, the problem-solving one or the politically driven one, shows up here.
That the wage freeze has been lifted for both city and school employees was good news and is, as the mayor claims, some vindication for recent city fiscal behavior -- although fiscal recovery is in large part because of the control board and its wage freeze, as well as bigger state handouts. It has been proof that the control board has changed the way business is done at City Hall, and should remind everyone that, despite calls from the mayor and public employee unions for its end, the board must stand by to make sure that the end of the freeze is a thaw, not a meltdown.