CenCom needs market-based solution

The recent public spat between the management and employees of Kitsap County Central Communications (911) indicated there was reason for concern on the part of residents who pay the bills and depend on CenCom’s services.

If the tentative agreement noted on Wednesday is finalized and then approved by the union members, the storm will have passed after causing little damage.

Laws that apply to collective bargaining and personnel issues restrict the amount of information available to ordinary residents, but some of the underlying beliefs of employees and at least one manager are evidenced by the few public statements.

Something occurred at the end of October that prompted the CenCom Deputy Director to abandon the constraints of good sense and post a statement on his Web log (“blog”) that expressed in harsh terms his disappointment with CenCom employees.

His statement to the world (or at least to the people who happened to come across his blog) might be read as expressing genuine, heartfelt sadness at the turn of events, but the rest of that day’s entry conflicts with this interpretation.

He also expressed his disappointment at learning that an actress whom he apparently had admired speaks with a British accent — and expressed criticism for what he believed to be her affectation.

It’s hard to believe he was truly saddened by the actress’s accent, so his harsh criticism of CenCom employees may also have resulted from something other than genuine disappointment.

If he believes a woman who speaks with the accent she learned as a child is putting on airs, one must wonder how accurate is his understanding of the behavior of his employees.

In criticizing CenCom employees about their union’s wage demands, this manager expressed the belief that government employees should accept being paid less than people working in the private sector of the economy.

If he followed this idea in negotiating with the union, it isn’t surprising that the negotiations — which began in March — didn’t lead to an agreement by the end of October.

Perhaps there are many taxpayers who believe the same thing about the personal compensation of government employees, in which case there needs to be a more effective educational process for both the residents who pay the bills and the managers who negotiate on their behalf.

Personal compensation must be sufficient to attract and retain competent employees who adequately perform the needed work. It’s that simple.

There is no self-sacrifice required of government employees regarding their compensation, and there is no authority to enforce such a requirement. It’s a free country, and they can choose whether to work for the wages and benefits offered or to walk away.

It may sometimes seem at first glance that government employees earn less than people who work in the private sector, but that is ordinarily because there is no actual equivalence between their jobs and those to which they are compared.

In the private sector, it is often necessary to make hay while the sun shines. The pay for a job must be enough to meet today’s needs and desires and to save something for the future, since today’s job may be gone tomorrow.

Government employees rarely face much uncertainty about the continued need for their services. So unless they choose to go elsewhere or get fired for misbehavior, their pay can be adequate even though it appears to be less than what private sector employees earn for similar work.

Kitsap County residents ought to expect the pay of government employees to be high enough to ensure the services they need are provided.

Ideally, not one dollar more ought to be paid — and not one dollar less can be paid — without risking disruptions in necessary public services.

Of course, the ideal cannot often be met, since the terms of any negotiated bargain can easily miss the ideal by going a little high or a little low. But the emphasis needs to be placed on the word “little.”

Pay that’s too generous takes away revenue that is needed for other services, while pay that is too low drives competent employees away. Having said all that, it must also be noted that the letter-writing campaign that began a few weeks ago indicates that CenCom employees may also hold unreasonable beliefs which could prevent reaching an agreement.

It appears that some CenCom employees believe that their personal compensation should be determined based on what they deserve for worthy and admirable services rendered to the community.

This belief is just as wrongheaded as the idea that government employees should expect to be paid less than people working in the private sector.

The value of their services is determined by the market. There is no substitute system for determining their pay, as though they were being rewarded for worthy service to the community. It also appears CenCom employees believe their pay should be raised because 911 employees in other places earn more.

The pay of others in similar jobs at other places may indicate the level of pay needed to compete for desirable employees, but it doesn’t determine the pay that’s appropriate for those who live and work in the Kitsap County area.

Both sides need to come to the negotiating table intending to arrive at a market-based bargain so that their disagreements can be resolved.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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