Taxpayer patience, resources are not unlimited

There may be a message for the Salem firefighters' union and its champions on the City Council in the results of last Thursday's special election in Gloucester.

Despite a threat by the mayor that rejection of a $1.2-million Proposition 2<1/2> override would force him to lay off firefighters and close the fire station that serves the city's Magnolia section, the vote was overwhelmingly against the proposed spending hike. Even 74 percent of those in Magnolia voted against the plan, which was rejected by an 80-to-20-percent margin citywide.

The message, according to override opponent Tom Sullivan: "We need to control our finances. We're being taxed to death."

In Gloucester, Salem and other cities, taxpayers are growing increasingly frustrated with tax hikes being fueled in part, by skyrocketing residential property values and overly generous contracts. Many of the latter were first negotiated in an era when municipal salaries were below those that could be obtained in the private sector, and the practice was to make up for that disparity by providing state, city and town employees with attractive and presumably less expensive benefits like unlimited sick days and early retirement.

But salaries have grown along with the influence of the public employee unions, and benefits once considered a minor cost factor now weigh heavily on the municipal bottom line. Add to that the two-day shifts and minimum manning requirements firefighters in Salem, Gloucester and many other communities now enjoy, and you have a recipe for cost inflation that many municipal chief executives say can no longer be sustained.

Which is the reason Salem Mayor Stan Usovicz was in court Friday arguing for the right to reduce the number of personnel in his Fire Department. Councilors were quick to jump on the union's bandwagon when the mayor first proposed these cuts, but as Usovicz pointed out in a letter to this newspaper last week, the cost of escalating Fire Department overtime has to be made up somewhere, whether it's via cuts in other city services or higher taxes.

Nor is he alone. Beverly Mayor William Scanlon has said that even with a trash fee, his city can't afford the $520,000 it would cost in overtime alone to raise fire staffing to previous levels. And in Marblehead, members of the firefighters' union reasonably agreed to forego a pay increase in order to avoid layoffs in their department.

Firefighters, who risk life and limb when called on to enter a burning building, are among our most valued public servants. But as the results of last week's election in Gloucester demonstrated all too clearly, there's a limit to what the public is willing to contribute toward the operation of municipal government.

There must be a better balance between the demands of the public employee unions and the burden those demands impose on the average homeowner.