Supervisor pay raise arguments are not convincing

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Turns out we won’t get much time to consider a supervisor pay raise.

I previously wrote that the Linn County Board of Supervisors would be taking up the matter of their proposed 25 percent pay raise in March. We’re now told that the board will be discussing the issue at its meeting tomorrow (Monday), with a vote as early as Wednesday, according to supervisors Linda Langston and John Harris.

There’s simply no good reason to drag this out, the supervisors said. After all, they’ve received almost no public comment on the move. Just a few emails, they said.

“The public is not really paying a whole lot of attention to that,” Harris said.

Just pesky hacks. Not the first time I’ve been behind the curve. Won’t be the last.

Langston and Harris met with our editorial board Thursday to explain why they believe supervisors who make $74,362.98 per year now should instead make $92,953.73.

Supervisors’ current salary is 80 percent of what other elected county officials make. In 2008, the then-three-member board, including current members Langston and Lu Barron, voted to cut its pay in the face of public outcry over a proposed salary increase, just as the board was expanding to five members. The cut to 80 percent was, basically, a political escape hatch.

Langston now says it was only a test, a temporary measure intended to see how the five-member board would operate. I think it’s important to note that right after the 2008 election, Langston was among supervisors who moved quietly to rescind the pay cut, even before the five-member board was seated. Seems like a short-lived test. Again, the public resisted, and the idea was dropped.

Langston and Harris contend that supervisor pay should be on a level playing field with other elected officials. They argue that a supervisor’s job has become more complex, with difficult issues, flak from critics and tons of meetings. They insist that the current pay level will deter the “best and brightest” candidates from running for the board in the future.

Langston also said the time is right, because a Statehouse push to cut and cap property taxes could lead to lean times for counties, making such a raise much less palatable.

I listened and scribbled. But I’m still not convinced.

I asked them if they could cite a single tangible benefit that this pay raise would provide to their constituents. “Honestly, likely not at this time.” Langston said, before returning to the argument that raising pay would encourage good people to run for office in the future.

If this is really about the future, why not make the pay raise apply to supervisors elected in 2014, or maybe even 2016, and beyond? That’s the future.

Langston’s argument that the board should pass this now because property tax cuts could mean lean budgets ahead is truly astounding. I think the distinct possibility of budget woes is actually an excellent argument for not approving a raise.

Maybe the public doesn’t care. But if they do care, a pay raise could undermine the board’s ability to make its case on other, much more important budget issues.

Cedar Rapids City Council member Don Karr called me up to express his consternation over the fact that the pay raise issue surfaced as the county was asking the city to provide $100,000 or more to help cover the cost of additional county health inspectors. “This irritates the living you-know-what out of me,” Karr said. The county has since decided to pay for the inspectors.

Whether you think the city should help pay for inspections at Cedar Rapids restaurants or not, it seems obvious, at least for Karr, that the pay issue got in the way.

I’ve been told more than once that I have it in for these supervisors. That’s flat wrong. They’re experienced, dedicated public servants.

And I respect public officials who take risks and expend political capital to solve problems, make needed reforms and help their constituents. I don’t always agree, but I respect it.

In this case, the risk being taken will benefit the officials themselves. And we’ve seen way too many of our political leaders, at all levels, in recent years doing stuff that benefits them, or their career, at the expense of addressing critical issues and their constituents’ needs.

I’m certainly not blaming the supervisors for all of that, or saying they don’t care about the people they represent. I’m just simply in no mood to shrug and say this is OK. They haven’t made a convincing case for how this will improve the lives of the taxpayers who pay whatever salary they make, or make this county a better place to live, so they should drop it and move on.

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