Out of the $1.4 billion 2014 budget proposal that Fort Worth City Manager Tom Higgins has presented to the City Council, out of the $570 million of it that comes from the General Fund, out of the excruciating detail of council discussions on the budget during the past two weeks and the proposals to “right-size our spending,” there is a $5 million gem that caught my eye.I like it. It’s bound to be noticed by the city’s general employees, meaning about half of the 6,000-plus municipal workers, the ones who are neither firefighters nor police.Putting it in my own words, it says to the general employees, “Help us find $5 million in sustainable cuts to this budget during the next year, and you can keep it.”I’m sure those employees would want it to be more. They’ve had only one raise in the past five years.Still, it’s something. In the way it is put together, it says to the employees that the city manager and council want them to have a raise, but the budget still needs some work to get to that point.“We need to do something,” Higgins said in a recent discussion of the budget. The city is seeing the effects of the no-raise years, with some employees leaving for better-paying jobs. That trend will continue as the national economy slowly picks up steam.Here’s the way it’s supposed to work, assuming the plan doesn’t change during council discussions between now and the scheduled budget adoption in mid-September:The budget includes a 5 percent raise for general employees to begin on Sept. 1, 2014, the last month of the coming fiscal year. The raise will continue into the 2015 fiscal year if enough sustainable spending reductions have been found to pay for it.“We’re going to work our way through that by the end of the [fiscal 2014] year,” Higgins said.The employees are not in this alone. The city has created a three-person “performance management” staff to find efficiencies throughout the organization and train workers as part of a “lean government” initiative.I think if my raise depended on it, the easiest thing to do would be to point to employees in some other department and say we ought to cut them because they don’t carry their weight. But that would be awfully small of me, and smart supervisors wouldn’t fall for it.Police officers already have programmed-in raises resulting from a new meet-and-confer contract approved in March. Firefighters are working under a collective bargaining contract that expires Sept. 30 but will stay “evergreen” until a new agreement is reached.Again, if I were one of the city’s general employees, I might worry about those contract negotiations. I’d think, what if the firefighters get so much of a raise that it eats up all the sustainable savings we find that are supposed to pay for my raise?Welcome to the world of the general employee. Police and firefighters always seem to have more sway.But there is another way of looking at it. The city manager has publicly committed himself to the plan aimed to give general employees that 5 percent raise — starting in September, 2014.If everything goes as planned, the City Council will make that same commitment when it approves the 2014 budget.With that much high-level exposure, it could be that this is $5 million the firefighters won’t get.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9