Private sector workers, even the dwindling number who are represented by unions, know that their employers' ability to pay is a fundamental issue in determining their compensation.

There is no such concern in the public arena, particularly for public safety employees. Because their compensation often is determined by state-mandated arbitration that in practice is skewed toward unions, it is based more on what their counterparts in other cities are paid rather than on local economic conditions or the specific economic condition of the municipal employer.

As demonstrated in a recent story by Borys Krawczeniuk of The Times-Tribune, the experience in Scranton is a case in point. Since 2001, city firefighters' base salaries have risen 49.5 percent and police officers' base salaries have risen 53.7 percent - rates of increase far higher than in the private sector. During that entire period, the city government officially has been designated as "distressed" under a state formula.

Public safety employees naturally defend a system that has served them well. But for the sake of not just Scranton, but cities statewide to efficiently provide public services, the arbitration system needs to change.

As noted by Gerald C. Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League, the arbitration process insulates public safety employees from market conditions that affect private sector wages. Arbitration awards reflect wages paid to public safety employees in other cities. Each new award then becomes the standard for the next award in the next city, creating what Mr. Cross aptly called a "leapfrog" effect.

Pending legislation in the General Assembly would require arbitrators to consider local ability to pay as a major factor in arbitration decisions - the market conditions now absent from the arbitration process.

Local lawmakers should work to pass that proposal. Doing so would provide at least some leverage for municipal employers during negotiations. And it would make arbitration less of a safe haven for municipal unions.