By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Auburn Reporter
May 19, 2013

The City of Auburn doesn't know a good thing when it sees it. Like other municipalities across our region, the City is strapped for cash. But when its own employees make proposals in bargaining that would save the taxpayers money, the City balks. What gives?

Earlier this year, the City rejected a proposal by Teamsters Local 117 to change City employees over to the Union's comparable, less expensive health and welfare plan, a move that could save the City $197,000 annually.

The Union also proposed giving City employees the choice to opt out of the health care plan altogether, provided that they have other, comparable coverage. If only 5 percent of represented City employees were to opt out – a modest estimate – the City would save up to $76,000 a year.

The City rejected that proposal as well.

The City also rejected a proposal to redirect 50 cents from its employees' wages into a defined benefit retirement plan. The idea, which is extremely popular among City employees, won't cost the City a dime. In fact, the City would save money by trimming expenditures on overtime costs.

Taken together, these proposals would add, at the very least, a few hundred thousand dollars to the City's depleted general fund. The City could use the savings to fill potholes, maintain streets, clean up city parks or beef up community policing. The City could stop outsourcing work to outside bidders, ensure the long-term maintenance of the Mountain View Cemetery and the City's Golf Course, or spare taxpayers from utility rate increases.

So far the City has given no logical reason for setting up roadblocks to more revenue. Officials have claimed that there is a "principle" at stake. What "principle" could be more important than the City's obligation to taxpayers to use its resources responsibly, to maintain critical services, and to provide decent working conditions for its employees?

Other cities and counties have enacted similar proposals, and the results speak for themselves. In 2010, Pierce County negotiated a switch to the Teamsters Health and Welfare plan. The plan offered County employees comparable benefits at a lower cost, and it ultimately saved the County $400,000.

At King County, a coalition of labor unions and the County collaborated to save the County $75 million while at the same time setting aside a designated reserve fund of $25 million to provide affordable health care and to control health care costs for County employees.

Public employees work hard to provide vital services to our communities. They clear our streets during snow emergencies, maintain our roads, clean up our parks, and keep our communities safe. Instead of recognizing them for their service, the City of Auburn is inexplicably blocking its employees from attempting to improve their benefits and rein in health care costs, at a considerable cost savings to the City.

Contrary to the prevailing rhetoric, unions and employers can work together in the public sector to achieve creative solutions to difficult challenges that benefit both workers and taxpayers. Not so at the City of Auburn, which so far has been unwilling to think outside the box.