Forecaster Forum: Public servants or public masters?

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Time was when taking a job with the government was seen as a bit of a sacrifice, and hence the term “public service” seemed appropriate. Those working in government were giving up financial reward while they provided services to the public.

When I graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering in 1963, the government offered me a job at about two-thirds the starting pay then common in the private sector. It took me about a nanosecond to decide which offer I’d accept.

Today, according to columnist Amity Shlaes, “wages and benefits for federal civilian workers were more than double the average total compensation in the private sector: $119,982 versus $59, 909.” I’ve also seen data that shows that the average compensation for a Maine state employee is more than $10,000 (30 percent) higher than average private-sector incomes in our economically disadvantaged state.

So much for sacrifice. And when you consider that government employees have far more secure benefits, and virtually guaranteed lifetime employment, the notion of “public servant” is nearly impossible to accept. Hence I bristle whenever that bromide is employed for emotional effect. Especially when accompanied by a “we know better than you do” attitude and resistance to any form of accountability.

And so we come to the annual cycle of local budget deliberations. How many times have you heard highly paid public managers explain that proposed spending increases are “due to costs beyond our control?” I heard it for years, and finally realized what they meant was “costs we approved in prior years.”

True costs “beyond our control” include only those related to weather, and the cost of commodities determined in the larger marketplace, like heating oil. What the officials really meant by costs beyond their control were almost entirely the consequences of labor contracts they approved in years past, which guaranteed compensation increases for two or three years in the future.

The premise is that local taxpayers have no choice but to deal with these pre-negotiated increases; taxes must be raised because the expenditures are “beyond our control.” And then it dawned on me. These are not public servants in the literal sense; these are public masters demanding tribute from their private servants.

They “negotiate” a contract in which they receive increased compensation, but the taxpayer receives nothing in return, other than a promise not to walk off the job. Ultimatum seems like a far more accurate term than negotiation.

The balance shifted many years ago. No longer do we have a public (government-employed) sector self-sacrificing to serve the interests of their private-sector employers. In fact, we have just the opposite: a sector of private “servants” obliged to meet the pre-established demands of their masters in the public employ.

I submit that it is time to restore the concept that government serves at the pleasure and consent of the private citizen, instead of vice-versa. Instead of public-sector unions, and especially the teachers unions, negotiating generous increases the taxpayers are forced to “deal with,” regardless of the cost, let’s reverse the model.

From now on, let local taxpayers negotiate with town and school department officials to lock in place what they are willing to pay in taxes for the next three years. And when the economy is sour, like it is now, the contract would include spending decreases. Then, teachers and other government employees would be obligated to “deal with it.” Because they are the “public servants” and we are the private employers.

This would restore the rightful relationship between government employees and those they “serve.” And public servants would be faced with realities that taxpayers consider “beyond their control.”

Brunswick resident Pem Schaeffer is the owner of “The Other Side of Town …,” a blog that can be found at