Salaries and benefits for public employees are a city’s biggest expense, so when a community is confronted by difficult budget challenges, the conversation inevitably turns to the municipal workforce — its size and compensation level.

While the City Council and administration can take unilateral action to eliminate or add positions (and in recent years we have reduced New Rochelle’s workforce to its smallest size in our modern history), salary and benefit levels for unionized employees must be collectively bargained, and cannot be simply dictated. That is why partnering with municipal employee unions can be essential to getting a handle on costs, without sacrificing service levels.

In this spirit, I applaud New Rochelle’s local Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and New Rochelle’s management team for agreeing to a new contract that acknowledges the present fiscal climate and that provides for fair compensation with only a minimal escalation in total costs. Over its four-year term, the contract sets annual salary increases of 0%, 0%, 2%, and 2%, as well as minor adjustments in other benefits. Overall, labor costs for this bargaining unit will increase by an average of about 1% per year. On Tuesday, the City Council approved this package unanimously, and I hope it will serve as a template for the City’s other unions.

I do not, by the way, subscribe to the theory that puts the blame for today’s fiscal woes on public employees. Public employment tends to be more stable than private employment, meaning that public employees often underperform the private workforce in good times and overperform the private workforce in bad times — and it is unfair to consider only half of this equation. Several months ago, the New York Times undertook a comprehensive comparison of public and private employment and concluded, with many caveats, that positions in government that do not require a college degree tend to pay slightly better than their private sector equivalents, while government jobs that do require a college degree tend to pay somewhat less.

But, in the end, debating blame is unconstructive. This is about accepting responsibility for solutions. And when it comes to finding the least painful budget solutions, reasonable settlements with public sector unions present the best path forward.