Budget rescue from firefighters

Lexington's firefighters showed respect for the public — and respect for economic realities — by ratifying a contract that freezes their pay for two years and cuts their benefits.

In return, they got a promise that no firefighters will be laid off.

Mayor Jim Gray was lavish in his praise of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 526 — and rightly so.

Without the concessions, Gray had said, the city would have been forced to lay off 50 firefighters, a cutback that could have jeopardized public safety.

By a decisive 308-99 vote, firefighters put the public good above their own more narrow interests, finding, as the mayor said, "a new way to come to the rescue of their city."

This year's city budget, the first with Gray as mayor, is built on assumed savings of $5.6 million. The fire contract gets the city $2.3 million of the way there.

The city is still negotiating with police and jail employees who would do well to take a cue from the firefighters.

One disappointment in Lexington's collective bargaining process is that issues related to pensions, normally a mainstay of labor negotiations, have no place. There's not much point in the city and its unions negotiating pension issues because the legislature, which mandated collective bargaining for Lexington police and fire in 2004, also controls their pension system.

It's a perplexing arrangement in which the legislature enjoys giving out goodies with no obligation to pay for them, while the obligation falls to Lexington taxpayers.

Couple this odd arrangement with the city's past failures to properly fund police and fire pensions, and you get a pension fund that's underfunded by $221 million.

The city has been trying to catch up on its pension obligations; a third bond issue to shore up police and fire pensions is due later this year.

But the pension fund, which is further undermined by a ridiculously generous disability policy, needs both more money and benefit reforms. Without pension reform, or huge tax increases and service cuts, future retirees will be left high and dry.

The city's police and fire unions and the administration will have to show the legislature a united front to repair the pension system.