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City budget debate
At 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the Fort Wayne City Council will hold a second public hearing on proposed tax hikes as well as discuss cuts to employee benefits.

City workers must do part in budget cuts

The city can’t balance its budget on the backs of city employees. But the revenue gap must be bridged. And coupled with a need for more spending on public safety, roads and parks, everyone has to contribute to the solution – city taxpayers and city employees.

The Fort Wayne City Council was right to approve cuts to city employee benefits. The changes are reasonable and will save about $2 million.

The council also was wise to take more time to consider a proposal that would require the coordination of insurance benefits but also carve out health care benefits from the collective bargaining process.

Instead of being able to accrue a massive number of sick days, employees will get five sick days and a new short-term disability benefit. Another change ends a compensatory time off benefit for Patrolman’s Benevolent Association members, which will encourage police officers to use their allotted vacation time and reduce large cash payouts for unused vacation days.

The city will end up paying about $460,000 in overtime but spent $850,000 for payouts in 2012.

“Some of these benefits were a good idea when they were conceived, but they are no longer fiscally responsible,” City Attorney Carol Helton said.

As an example, she said, employees with 10 years of service formerly could use the payout for accrued sick time to remain eligible for city health insurance benefits even after they had left their post and taken a job with another employer.

“When we’re in a fiscal crisis, those are the type of benefits we can no longer afford,” Helton said. “We still want to be fair, but we have to be fiscally responsible.”

The city faces an $11 million revenue gap and needs additional money for police and fire academy classes, park maintenance and road repairs.

City employees may not like the changes but should understand that $4 out of every $5 in the city budget goes toward paying employee salaries and benefits. The only other options are cutting employees or services.

“I appreciate the fact employees are not going to like the cuts,” Helton said. “Change is always difficult. But we have to balance the interest of all concerned here. We’ve tried to make them as palatable as possible, and this was the least intrusive cuts we could make. We gave this a lot of consideration, but when 80 percent of your budget is personnel, it’s hard not to cut into them. We didn’t want to cut people and we didn’t want to cut services. So, this was a place we could cut with the least intrusion.”

On Tuesday, the council will consider the administration’s request for the coordination of health insurance benefits. The proposed ordinance would require a city employee’s spouse to accept insurance offered by the spouse’s employer and then use city insurance as secondary coverage for medical expenses their primary insurance does not cover.

“We tried to match what private-sector employers are doing. Most private-sector employers have spousal exclusions,” Helton said. The city will still provide spouses secondary coverage.

The city’s nine unions, understandably, objected to taking health insurance benefits off the bargaining table. But the coordination of benefits requirement will save the city another $2 million and is a reasonable cost-saving measure that should be adopted.