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The pay of elected officials–– the highs and lows

     A week ago we reported the salaries of all offices up for election, our response to questions posed by an informal group after a recent Tea Party meeting.

     There are obviously a lot of different opinions on how much someone should be paid for a job they are elected to do. What follows are a few thoughts about that. Some are our own. Others are repeated here from opinions we heard voiced at the Tea Party gathering.

     Unlike the private sector (where we assume everyone can negotiate their best price), in government, officials get paid with tax dollars, which creates a different set of expectations.

     Something to keep in mind, even in a sole commissioner county, is that the top man cannot just approve himself a raise whenever he feels like it. Salaries of those elected to county office are set according to state guidelines. Admittedly, there have been plenty of scandals across the nation when officials found avenues to advance their pay unofficially and unscrupulously.

     Some of the politically interested citizens at the Tea Party meeting felt a fair salary for a “public servant” should be based on the average income of the area to be served. In other words, if the average local income is somewhere in the $30,000’s, that’s about what the commissioner should make.

     This would certainly seem fair to the community and might bring out candidates with public service uppermost in their minds. But we question whether such pay would be truly fair to ones sure to suffer the public slings and arrows saved for candidates running for office. We also ask what effect this pay system might have on the quality of candidates.

     If we were to apply the average income method locally, we would find our officials are paid about twice too much, with the commissioner and sheriff paid nearly $70,000 each, along with a very nice benefits package. Our magistrate, probate judge, tax commissioner and clerk of court all earn  $50,000 to $60,000 plus benefits.

     Another idea on setting salaries would be to base pay on what an average CEO of a company the size of a school system or government would make.

     Our future commission chair will be responsible for an organization that employs more than 300 people and works a yearly budget of $19 million. Further, the position oversees extensive projects like the $12 million courthouse construction and is the buck-stop authority to a myriad of important duties such as fire protection, youth recreation and keeping water pressure in county water lines.

     Conversely, those who make their living from government are not sitting up nights to worry about how they’ll make payroll this week or about how to tell someone with years of experience they have been laid-off.

     Still, if we use this CEO business model, then our officials here aren’t paid half enough.

     It’s laughable to hear politicians tout withholding pay raises as a mark of conservative spending. Not only has the private sector foregone pay increases in recent years, they have cut pay, benefits and jobs as a means to survive.

     Finally, the Tea Party discussion indicated the $10,200 pay for newly created district commissioner posts is an odd sort-of-hybrid idea. But $10,200 is nothing to scoff at for part-time work in this economy. There are a lot of people who would welcome the chance to earn $10,200 by working maybe a couple of meetings per week and answering a few e-mails.

     On the other hand, that amount is certainly not enough if pay alone is the reason we expect someone to serve effectively.

     A problem encountered with several nominally paid county posts, like tax boards or the school board, is the sometimes public notion that lack of pay becomes an excuse for poor performance in office. Too many times we have heard, “Well, they ain’t really paying him, so what can you expect?” or “I wouldn’t do it for $50 a meeting.”

     We’ve never heard anyone on a board or commission say this, but we have heard members of the public make this excuse for low performance among those serving. We encourage everyone to drop that line of reasoning. Before anyone accepts an appointment to a board or enters an election race, they must approach it with the aim to work to the best of their ability, not to a level dictated by part-time pay.

     For district commissioners, we have a good crop of candidates. They express a desire to govern in new posts, like it’s an honor and a duty they take seriously. Regardless of the pay, let’s be sure we hold them to that standard – full time.

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