’99-percenters’ not the problem in public pension costs

The national debate about the local and state public sector rages on. Many on the Republican right engage in reflexive bashing of the public-sector and its capacity to bargain collectively while the traditional Democratic left has found political support (at the expense of financial prudence) in embracing a public union-at-all-costs approach.

But there is a constructive middle ground when it comes to our rank-and-file local and state public employees, the overwhelming majority of whom work diligently and ethically in delivering critical services, maintaining public safety, and protecting our physical environment, food, water and air.

The concept of civil service is quite simple: the rank-and-file, or lower rungs in the employment ladder, are protected by rules that prevent changeovers with each new administration; conversely, the upper rungs in the ladder, occupied by management, are not protected. (They serve at the will of the elected officials or are hired by professional administrators as at-will employees.)

Now let’s talk about salaries and benefits.

Because pension benefits are typically tied to a percentage of the highest salary earned, there are managers who can retire at 50 or 55 years old with pensions in the six-figure range.

Obviously no system, private or public, can absorb such generous benefits. But it should be kept in mind, as we reform excesses in the bureaucracy, that the lower ranks of the civil service are filled with teachers, nurses and nurses’ assistants, rescue technicians, parks, transit, solid waste and public works employees and others whose salaries often never exceed $50,000 and whose pensions usually do not exceed one-third of that, or about $15,000/year even after 20 years of service.

These rank-and-file employees are already seeing their defined benefit plans cut to align more in market value to the defined contribution plans more common in the private sector.

Those are the “99 percenters,” and they are not the problem.

Miami-Dade County has a manager-to-employee ratio (called "span-of-control") of 1-5. This ratio is in stark contrast to the private sector, where a typical span-of-control ratio is eight to 10 employees for each supervisor.

One county department (Fire) has 2,000 employees, of whom almost 700 are supervisors and no fewer than 80 have the title of "chief" something-or-other.

We need to reduce their ranks to something manageable.

We might find that, in the process, the administration of an agency whose services have not changed substantially in half a century becomes much more efficient, as the number of supervisors is reduced and the number of field employees is increased.

In the debate about the public sector, we need to move beyond the outdated platitudes of the left and right, and do something that rarely occurs in the public discourse on this subject — differentiate.

Distinguish between the public sector equivalent of the middle class — the overwhelming majority of our public employees who are essential to the successful functioning of our local and state governments and who earn a fair wage, and those in the public sector who are underperformers or who add unnecessary layers of management and often draw compensation (salaries and benefits combined) that exceed the compensation of their private sector counterparts.

And if we do that, we will have a lot more people and resources to fill the ever-growing number of potholes in our county.

Xavier L. Suarez is the Miami-Dade County commissioner representing District 7.

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