The Smithfield Town Council was inclined, briefly, to curb taxpayer spending on employee benefits. But employees protested, and the council yielded, so in the year ahead, taxpayer spending on employee benefits will actually grow.
Smithfield leaders – some of them anyway – still consider this a savings because spending won’t grow as much as it would have had the council kept its current insurer. Only in government can spending more be considered savings.
Part of the problem is that in Smithfield, the bosses do what the employees tell them, not vice versa. So when town employees said they didn’t want to lose any benefits, or pay more for them, the town council said OK.
This subservience to town employees is hard to fathom because their numbers are too small to influence an election. As recently as two years ago, employees showed they could not elect a candidate with close ties to Town Hall. Alas, we suspect it will take more elections to shape a town council that answers first to taxpayers and then to employees.
But lack of political fortitude aside, the town council’s resolve to reform benefits might have been stronger had it looked at the challenge differently. At the start of this year’s budget process, the town council told Town Manager Paul Sabiston to cut spending 5 percent for 2013-14. But benefits – pensions and health insurance – are recurring expenses that can last a lifetime, literally. Had the council set its mind to reducing spending over years, not months, it might not have been so quick to reverse course.
Smithfield isn’t Illinois, but town employees are fooling themselves if they think taxpayers can continue to fully fund a long list of benefits, including traditional pensions, 401(k) savings accounts and lifetime health insurance for employees, plus health insurance for employees’ spouses and children.
A reckoning is coming, and on that day, some employees will no doubt ask their elected leaders why they didn’t act sooner, before the problem got out of hand and forced drastic cuts to promised benefits. We doubt they will see the irony in the question.