Addison’s Budget: The Price of Politics

Addison’s Budget: The Price of Politics
By: Susan M. Halpern
(Addison Councilmember 1992 – 99) 

The budget adopted by Addison’s City Council left a significant part of Addison’s employee compensation problems unaddressed and unresolved. Specifically, compensation for non-sworn employees remains well below the average for similar employees in benchmark communities. As to these employees, Addison will continue its ill-advised non-strategy of trying to maintain its staff and fill vacancies with non-competitive compensation packages.  Sound like a bad plan?  It is.

The Council had the means and the ability to fix the problem in this year’s budget, in a manner that would, unquestionably, be sustainable. But Mayor Meier flexed his political muscle and insisted on reducing the tax rate by one cent per hundred dollars of value. One cent. A penny.  Do you know what that amounts to?  For the average household in Addison, about $20-$25 for the entire tax year. The price of a burger dinner.  Meier orchestrated this savings at the expense of Addison’s dedicated employees, once again refusing to solve the compensation issue that has plagued Addison all during Meier’s tenure.

Why would Meier insist on reducing the tax rate in such a meaningless way? Because he plans to run for reelection next May and he is keen to create issues for his reelection platform. My prediction is that Meier will try to exploit this issue during his planned campaign, pandering to Addison voters by claiming that he worked hard to lower Addison’s tax rate. And, while the statement about a lower rate will be literally true, it will obviously be misleading.

Here’s another prediction: in typical fashion, Meier will avoid specifics and he will certainly avoid telling Addison voters the rest of the story.  Voters won’t hear about how the reduction in the tax rate was de minimus, there won’t be an analysis of the cost of employee attrition, there won’t be a discussion of the added costs of training new employees, and Meier certainly won’t address the vacancies Addison can’t fill because its compensation is not competitive.

Does this mean that the current budget is awful and the sky is falling? Clearly not.  There are many good things in our budget, much of it made possible by our economic recovery and the hard work of the aforementioned underpaid employees.  For example, the current budget allocates funds to bring public safety employees up to the average paid by benchmark communities. But it is important to understand that Meier’s original instructions to City Manager Lea Dunn included no such allocation.  It wasn’t until AFTER significant political pressure was brought to bear on the Council by the Addison police and fire associations and by Truth in Addison that Meier finally relented. As has come to be his trademark, Meier arrived at the right result but only for political reasons, and not until after he created significant ill will along the way.

The failure to address compensation in a comprehensive manner sets Addison up for a day of reckoning at some point in the not-too-distant future. Addison is chasing its tail as benchmark communities continue to institute employee raises on an annual basis. Each year that Addison ignores the issue, it falls further behind and makes fixing the problem more difficult.  Certainly, bringing our sworn employees to average is helpful.  But, ignoring the low pay of non-sworn employees is shortsighted and injurious.

The reality is that an investment in all of Addison’s employees would have paid dividends into the future by reducing employee attrition and enabling Addison to compete with benchmark communities for employees to fill positions that, in some cases, have been vacant for well over a year.  Had Meier done what was best for Addison, the Council could have sent an important message to Addison’s employees, recognizing them for the efforts they make that are the backbone of Addison’s success.  It was and is the right thing to do.

But that’s not what Meier is about. On this and other issues, Meier continues to “lead” the Council based on what is politically expedient for him rather than what is right for Addison. As a result, the road that is Meier’s tenure is littered with lost opportunities.

All of which has a price that will be paid by employees and residents alike. On employee compensation, that price includes low morale, attrition, the costs associated with new employees and in connection with police and fire, it means a safety staff weighted with inexperience.  No doubt, such consequences are difficult to measure.  But they are no less real.

And that’s before we even begin to address the question of whether compensating Addison’s employees at the “average” will foster the innovation and creativity that has historically driven Addison’s unique development.

Addison has been blessed over the years with many councilmembers who understood that their role was to set policy and then get out of the way of the competent and professional management personnel who actually run our town.  Meier has upset that balance with his heavy-handed tactics and his never-ending campaigns of misinformation and propaganda.  Addison’s residents deserve better, starting with leadership that does the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  In the meantime, Addison’s residents (and its business community), will pay the price for the political gamesmanship of this mayor and those councilmembers he worked so hard to elect.

As we approach the prospect of next year’s election, we urge Addison’s residents to think about Addison’s future, which we urge can only be secured when the price of political gamesmanship is imposed at the polls upon those who choose to play pointless political games.