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Public salaries move only upward

Medford city leaders are poised to boost pay levels for the fire chief, the police chief and fire and police command positions. Not all council members approved of the move in a meeting last week, but the raises appear likely to gain final approval when they come up again next month. Wanting to stay competitive is understandable, but local government seems all too willing to hand out raises whenever they are proposed regardless of the city's financial state or that of the broader local economy.

If the proposal is adopted, Medford Police Chief Tim George would get a 7.5 percent increase, Fire Chief Brian Fish would get 5 percent, and police sergeants, lieutenants and deputy chiefs would get 5 percent, as would fire battalion and deputy chiefs.

We have no reason to doubt that the individuals involved perform their jobs well. This is not about them. It's about what seems to be an irresistible urge on the part of elected officials to reward public employees regardless of how their constituents might be faring. 

The pattern is predictable: A survey is taken of salaries paid by other communities, which invariably seems to prove that local wages are substandard. So the paychecks are increased — and then other communities see that their wages have now fallen behind and respond similarly. That sets up a form of wage inflation that the private sector often does not have the luxury of engaging in.

It also ignores the other intangibles that keep employees on the job, such as the quality of life, the climate or a good working environment, suggesting job satisfaction is related to financial considerations only.

Medford is not alone in this. Ashland city councilors approved new salary steps above current levels for city department heads, citing a desire to remain competitive with other jurisidictions.

All this comes at a time when the overall economy still has not recovered to pre-recession levels and salaries in the private sector, particularly in rural areas, continue to lag. It's hard to sell local residents on 5 percent or 7 percent raises for public employees when those in the private sector are lucky to see a small fraction of those increases.

Public officials should appreciate and recognize the value good employees bring to their jobs. But that recognition doesn't always have to come attached to a big pay raise, especially if the justification for that raise is trying to keep up with bigger salaries at other public institutions.