Last week, the Belfast public works employees and the city manager each got 3 percent raises. The increases were consistent with those negotiated with the police union last year, and at that time, the City Council extended comparable raises to nonunion employees in accordance with city policy. Most county employees also got 3 percent cost of living allowances last year, with the exception of the Waldo County Deputies, who got a 4 percent COLA plus 25 cents per hour in both 2009 and 2010.

In a way, this is to be expected. To not give workers the COLA amounts to giving them a pay cut proportionate to the rate of inflation. Yet, compared with wages in the private sector, the cost of living raises granted to government workers look extravagant, especially when many private sector workers are being forced to accept pay cuts. We saw this most recently in the 8.5 percent pay cut taken by workers at the Fraser Paper Mill in Madawaska, a concession negotiated with the powerful United Steel Workers Union. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost index, employee compensation in the private sector increased 1.2 percent over the last 12 months, marking the smallest percent change since the index began in 1979.

The raises granted to local government workers are not happening automatically. To the contrary, the terms of each new contract have been hammered out over periods of months, in closed-door sessions, by the same elected officials who have produced nearly zero-increase budgets for the past two years at both the city and county level. So why are government raises so out of sync with those in the private sector? Maybe it’s symbolic — a reminder of our collective desire to be paid at least as much next year as we were this year. If we can’t have it for ourselves, the reasoning might go, maybe we can give the small number of municipal and county employees the wages and benefits that we think everyone deserves. Then again, maybe it’s just out of sync.

While it’s not easy to say that someone should effectively take a pay cut by virtue of forgoing a COLA, if the current economic trend continues, the City Council and county budget committee should take a hard look at the 2, 3 and 4 percent COLAs, if only because the people who are footing the bill are, by all accounts, getting less.