Cash-strapped government

Plus, what to do about Russia, and Obama’s upcoming convention
By EDITORIAL  |  August 20, 2008

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Most people realize that the nasty economic news is getting nastier. Unemployment is rising. Pay checks have stopped growing. And the cost of essentials, such as food and gasoline, has hit painful highs. Yet significant pockets of state and local government seem oblivious to reality.

The MBTA is a case in point. What was transit leadership thinking when it granted 237 nonunion, executive employees nine-percent raises? Never mind that the state is already financially strapped. The T itself is running in the red. And while the agency — more vital today than ever — needs greater taxpayer support, the way to get it is not to act as if it is your due.

Governor Deval Patrick did the right thing when he pressured the T into rescinding those raises.

The Boston City Council has likewise shown questionable judgment in awarding many members of its professional staff with sizable bonuses. Those bonuses allowed the Council to pay staffers more than the authorized pay range for such positions — $65,000–$85,000 for the staff director, for example — listed in city statues.

While that might seem like a substantial salary range to the blue-collar Joes and Josephines who constitute the bulk of the Council’s constituency, the public sector — like the private sector — must offer competitive salaries to attract talent. Hence a State House staffer can, and often does, receive a much higher salary than someone who does similar work at City Hall, only five minutes away.

Should some Council staffer deserve higher pay than he or she currently receives, however, the compensation should not be rewarded in a stealth manner — that only plays into the hands of the mad dogs of talk radio, and others who seem hell-bent on trying to cripple government a time when their services are so necessary.

The public sector should raise the amounts in public instead, in a straightforward way. Let voters know what’s going on.

If not, it is not alarmist to say that next year Boston may find itself in a fiscal crisis, with truly vital services threatened.

Only some deft fiscal management by Mayor Thomas Menino saved the city’s school from serious pain this year. But the handwriting is on the wall. The city is so apparently strapped for cash that it asked for, and received, approval from the private, nonprofit Boston Public Library Foundation for $20,000 to help the newly appointed library president relocate here from Minnesota.

Strictly speaking, those costs should be born by the city. Any other leading cultural or educational institution would be expected to underwrite the relocation of its new chief. The BPL Foundation exists to provide help to the library for over and above routine expenses. It is a sure and sorry sign of the tough times to come that money that should be spent on extending the library’s reach is now needed to keep it afloat.

Russia: What to do
Going to war over Russia’s brutal invasion of the free and democratic Caucus nation of Georgia is out of the question. But the United States and European Union can do more than offer the violated tiny nation sympathy. Russia is stronger, thanks to a huge surge in revenue from oil and natural-gas profits. Its overall economy, however, remains weak. The West should hit the Russians where it will hurt most: its pocket book. The places to start are the hugely important economic umbrella organizations known as G7, which includes the rich industrialized powers of Europe, the United States, and Japan (but not Russia), and G8, which is G7 plus Russia.

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