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Last updated: Thu. May. 22, 2014 - 08:46 am EDT

Bargaining debate could use a little more time -- and a few more facts

If they're sincere, both sides will agree to objective study of public unions' impact

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Persuasive philosophical arguments and anecdotal evidence were presented for and against public-employee unions at Tuesday's marathon City Council meeting, but in the end former Councilman Mark GiaQuinta – an attorney, appropriately – presented the strongest case:

If you want to eliminate collective bargaining for about 1,300 flesh-and-blood city employees, the decision-making process should be intellectually rigorous and honest enough to be based upon real, objective data – and long enough to allow that data to be analyzed and commented upon.

This process, which began just two weeks ago and could be over in just a week or two more, has fallen short on both counts, on both sides.

GiaQuinta's dismissal of Councilman John Crawford's justification of three bills to limit or end bargaining as “junk science” was effective, but unfair. The problem with Crawford's presentation – and with the pro-union presentations by GiaQuinta a former Councilman Tim Pape, for that matter – is not so much that either relied on flimsy evidence, but that little pertinent evidence exists to suggest one way or another whether public-employee unions are good for Fort Wayne.

So if both sides are sincere in their insistence that they want what's best for taxpayers, there's only one sensible thing to do: Get some evidence that might settle the factual debate, if not the philosophical debate, once and for all.

That may not be precisely what Greater Fort Wayne Inc. President Mark Becker had in mind when he wrote council members this week that, “due to the complexity and cost of this issue, more time should be given for public discussion and to fully explore all the possible solutions." But it's a good idea nevertheless, and Fort Wayne just happens to have an organization up to the challenge: IPFW's scrupulously nonpartisan Community Research Institute.

Normally, the institute analyzes and reports upon data in economics, demographics, municipal finance and other fields, and Director Ellen Cutter acknowledged that studying the local effects of collective public bargaining would represent a departure from the norm. But the fact that participants in Tuesday's debate based some of their arguments upon information provided by the institute speaks to its credibility. “I fielded various calls, and put out as much data as I could. Federal and state (statistics) are already out there,” she said.

Comparable local information is not, prompting GiaQuinta to state that, to some degree, each side has relied upon “talking points, not data.”

But any local bargaining study would have to overcome at least two obstacles: The institute would have to be given unfettered access to employment and salary records – often covered by confidentiality laws or agreements – and it would have to be paid for its services.

“This isn't free, unfortunately,” Cutter said.

Even a relatively simple analysis of Fort Wayne and Allen County government might yield interesting results. Crawford has cited the pay differential between the unionized city and the union-free county, while GiaQuinta noted county employees work only 37.5 hours per week compared to 40 in the city. Which system is more efficient and productive? Which provides the best service at the lowest cost? What about worker morale and absenteeism? Are promotions and discipline fair? What are city budget and tax projections if nothing changes?

Crawford has said speed is required because there are no outstanding city contracts, but council can prolong that vacuum should it choose to do so, allowing time for a study and more-thorough debate. The pro-union Henry administration and the unions themselves should fully cooperate with such a study, and each side should be willing to pay their share of the cost.

And if such a study is feasible and either side declines to participate, the public should not hesitate to draw its own conclusions about the sincerity of their respective arguments.

Crawford has invoked municipal bankruptcy in places like Detroit to illustrate how politicians and public unions can conspire to ruin a city, but not even he claims Fort Wayne is on the road to ruin. Pape and GiaQuinta, meanwhile, point out that the city budget is balanced and that it is providing good services at reasonable cost – with mostly union employees.

There are plenty of legitimate philosophical or political reasons to support or oppose public unions. But with so much at stake, for so many employees and the city as a whole, philosophy and politics alone should not decide the outcome.

“We simply do the research, and let the numbers fall where they may,” Cutter said.

Such clarity is worth seeking, and well worth waiting for.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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