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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are public workers worth it?

You get what you pay for
By Will Collette

Conservatives hold it as an article of faith that public workers, especially unionized public workers, are ripping off taxpayers through undeserved high wages and pensions.

And high on the list of public workers to be vilified are police and firefighters. Personally, I don’t get it. How do you put a price on the work of men and women who run into burning buildings or go after armed bad guys or scrape accident victims off the road? How can you begrudge people who put their lives on the line for you or even think about reneging on the terms of employment that were promised them in return for their valor?

So far in 2012, 70 police officers have been killed in the line of duty, including Sgt. Maxwell Dorley of the Providence Police. Click here to see the list. At least 55 firefighters have been killed in the line of duty this year. Click here to read their names.

But ethics and morality aside, there’s a commonsense aspect to the debate.

I was recently loaned a copy of 50 State Comparisons, 2012 edition, a booklet published by the Taxpayers Network. They have compiled data tables that examine the hard numbers behind many current public policy questions. Each data table is clearly marked with the source of the data.

I was especially curious about looking at public safety, how Rhode Island compares in terms of expenditures and whether the data tells us anything about what we get for the money.

Here’s what I found:

Rhode Island is indeed high in the state rankings for how much we pay for police protection. We pay an average per capita cost of $73.39 a year for police protection. Some of the states that pay more for police protection are Alaska at #1, Massachusetts at #4 and Louisiana at #8. The lowest amounts paid for police protection are paid by Florida and Arkansas.

Rhode Island ranks #19 in the cost of imprisoning criminals. We pay an average of $166.42 each to keep people in jail, more than double what we pay for police protection. Arizona is first. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut spend more than we do.

In return for our relatively high costs for police protection and keeping people behind bars, Rhode Island is ranked #36 in violent crime (88 such crimes per 100,000) compared to Florida, which ranks fifth in the nation.

Rhode Island ranks #44 in crimes against property (339 per 100,000). By contrast, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama rank first, second and third, respectively.

For arrests, we rank #47 in the nation, while New Hampshire ranks first. So much for “Live Free or Die.”

We also jail far fewer people than most states – we rank #48, though we pay more per prisoner. At the other end of the scale, Louisiana and Mississippi rank first and second and Florida comes in seventh.

I am a firm believer in the saying that “statistics are like a captured spy – torture them enough and they’ll say anything.” So right-wing skeptics will certainly say, "yeah, but..." and trot out their usual anecdotal "proof."

But before you buy into the right-wing rhetoric or the silly and sensational TV news report on some ex-cop getting a disability pension while still able to work (as if that applied to all police retirees), let’s remember two considerations.

First, they signed on to the job prepared to put their lives at risk and we gave them the promised terms of employment that we now want to take back. Talk about reneging on your “moral, ethical and legal” obligations.

Second, the numbers show that we are a lot safer than people in those states that are unwilling to reward their police for their hard and dangerous work.