Colorado Springs City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft pettifogs her way through excuses for not cutting city employee salaries.
By Seth Richardson
In response to an inquiry from Gazette editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen about her rationale for calling pay cuts for city employees a “temporary” solution to city budget problems, City Manager Penny Culbreth-Graft bumbled, obfuscated and pettifogged her way through an explanation pretty much as badly as she’s bumbled her way through her own financial difficulties.
Culbreth-Graft, it was pointed out in the Gazette last week, owes more than $250,000 to the Huntington Beach City Employees Credit Union and some $8000 for unpaid property taxes in California. This is not what the public should expect or accept from the highly-overpaid City Manager of Colorado Springs. But it gets worse. It appears that she simply doesn’t understand the concept of “recession” or the need to make real cuts and sacrifices to make the city’s budget balance.
Culbreth-Graft’s excuse for refusing to cut city employee wages (including her own) is specious and a noxious display of the sort of arrogance that public officials often display about their position in society as public servants. Public Servants. Remember those words, because Culbreth-Graft doesn’t know what they mean, but she needs to be educated in their meaning, right before she’s sent back to California to face the music for her personal financial failings.
Culbreth-Graft uses the lame excuse of bureaucratic “that’s just how we do things” inertia to try to excuse her malfeasance in office. Here’s her explanation: “Council’s policy is to pay market wages.” That’s it. The rest of her letter is nothing more than trying to scare the public, and excuse her failure to advise Council that Colorado Springs can no longer afford to pay “market wages” to its employees. She refuses to advise that a permanent wage cut of at least five percent or more be instituted immediately, beginning, I would heartily suggest, with Culbreth-Graft’s own excessive $210,000 salary, which should be cut to no more than our County Commissioners make, which is $87,300. There is no reason for a public employee, any public employee, to make more than four times the median income in Colorado Springs, which is about $50,000. Tying public employee’s salaries to the prevailing median income would have the beneficial effect of making the economic condition of the people whom they serve very real and immediate. The public’s success would be their success, and the public’s distress would also be theirs.
She tries to excuse the excessive salaries by claiming that because “Police and Fire are both roughly 10 percent behind the market and given the aggressive hiring market for those skills sets in other cities, we have difficulty filling the positions and often lose employees to those higher-paying cities.” Well, it’s time for her to realize that Colorado Springs cannot afford champagne and caviar tastes on a hot-dogs and beans budget, so she’ll just have to start hiring hot-dog and beans employees. There are millions of people out of work, including fully-trained, experienced police officers from other jurisdictions nationwide who have lost their jobs, who would be happy to have a job at a reasonable wage. Small towns face this issue every day and manage to get by. They can’t afford to compete with Denver, Los Angeles or New York City, and neither can Colorado Springs, nor should it even try.
It’s also quite typical that instead of addressing the issue of an overall pay cut for all city employees, she focuses on police and firefighters, which is a typically bureaucratic passive-aggressive way of trying to scare the public into ponying up more tax money. Every government bureaucrat in history, when faced with trying to persuade the public to raise taxes, has resorted to the “we’ll have to cut essential public safety positions” canard as a method of fostering fear in the populace. Then she says “by using pay cuts we might balance the budget for the year but we never correct the imbalance — we simply perpetuate the problem of having more employees than we can afford.”
But remember, the “imbalance” she’s talking about is the imbalance between the salaries that Colorado Springs public employees get and those that define the arbitrary “market” she has used to determine what the market-based salaries ought to be. But her job is not to keep employee salary at the “market” rate, her job is to employ only those employees that the city needs, and to pay them a wage that the employee is willing to accept in return for the work required, and to hire competent employees while making every effort to economize and save the taxpayers money by paying the lowest acceptable wage based upon the economic conditions facing the City that will keep the absolute minimum necessary number of employees for the reasonable and proper functioning of the city, and only that number, employed.
If that means she needs to cut wages and allow those who do not wish to work for the salary offered to go their way with the citizen’s best wishes, then that’s what she needs to do, because right now there is an enormous pool of unemployed people all over the country who would be very happy to have a job that would keep food on the table and pay rent. That’s her duty, to provide city employees at the minimum possible expense, not to provide gold-plated sinecures and cushy, well-paying jobs to a bloated payroll of overpaid or unnecessary employees. She has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers NOT to give in to the complaints of city employees who are bound to carp about a pay cut. She’s paid the big bucks (way too big) to make the tough decisions and be the nasty, mean, cold-hearted headhunter who will hire and fire based on what the City needs and can afford and nothing else.
Times are tough all over, including here in Colorado Springs, and public servants have no special dispensation or entitlement to be insulated or immune from the economic forces that are besieging everyone. That’s a shame, and it’s unfortunate that anyone has to be jobless, but of all people, public servants at all levels take the job with the realization that if the public decides it doesn’t need their services any longer, or cannot afford them, they have no claim on their position, because the taxpayers are the ultimate Boss of Everybody in public service.
It’s time to call the bluff and demand that she start at the top, with a 25 percent pay cut for all administrative and supervisory positions that make more than $100,000 per year, and a five percent pay cut for all other employees, across the board.
And I’d suggest that the employees be asked if they’d rather take a pay cut or be fired. I suspect they’ll opt for the pay cut.