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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Furloughs buy time, but they're not cheap

As Hawai'i has learned through its first large-scale experiment with furloughs of public workers, they offer a more pragmatic and humane solution than layoffs or permanent pay cuts.

But there's a steep downside to furloughs, too.

The most obvious demerit against this option is the disruption it caused in the public schools over the course of the nearly completed academic year. Children lost valuable instructional time and the cohesion of a logical school calendar. Thousands of private businesses were forced to kick in their own contribution to cover for this failure of the system when parents took time off or brought their kids into the workplace.

The lessons learned here should inform Honolulu officials as they boldly go where the state has gone before.

The tentative agreement struck between the Hannemann administration and public employee unions would schedule 24 furlough days for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The detailed plan on how it would work is still being arranged, and the administration would be smart to do this carefully. Scattered shutdowns of some agencies, such as the Building Department, would add even more to the notorious delays experienced by applicants.

The city is compiling a list of exemptions from the furlough plan, meaning that public health and safety workers would take a pay cut instead of the unpaid time off. But that's not the only category in which the plan will need massaging.

Just as the state Bureau of Conveyances worked to stagger its furlough days among staff and remain open to the public, those city agencies whose backlog would have a harsh spillover effect on the economy should be kept accessible.

However, the other problem with furloughs is that they're a stopgap solution at a time when government should consider ways to cut costs and boost efficiency permanently. The plans are based on the assumption that the hours can be restored when the economy recovers and property values allow the city treasury to be replenished.

That may be a faulty assumption. Although many indicators give reason for hope for economic growth, neither the national nor the local picture is clear.

The mayor is close to settling the city's labor issue, seemingly just in time for a campaign season when he will need the goodwill of unions. The real question is whether anyone's looking beyond Election Day, and is charting a course for reductions in spending. Simply put, we need to bring government costs down to what we can afford and not simply assume annual increases in revenue.