When we pay government peanuts, that’s the quality we get
Written by Michael Lewis on February 19, 2014
Miami-Dade keeps cheating itself: We spend too many millions ineffectively in county hall rather than paying thousands to spend less.
We don’t like what county commissioners do, so we pay them peanuts. And because we pay peanuts, we’re destined to spend badly forever.
Commissioners get $6,000 a year for a job that is full time in a county with more people than 102 nations have. For that, we expect the best talent Miami can provide to oversee $6 billion spending.
What business in its right mind pays those who control billions less than $3 an hour? That’s 40% of what McDonald’s pays burger-flippers.
Is it any wonder commissioners often seem ill-prepared on issues? Maybe it’s because they’re busy doing something to pad their incomes. And if not, how are they making ends meet?
The issue arose when we wrote last week about commissioners’ lament that meeting one-on-one only in public as law requires costs them too much time. We noted that democracy is slow and open government even slower. We added that we unfairly expect top-quality, full-time labor for $6,000.
We still pay what part-time commissioners got in 1957, when population was a third of today’s 2.6 million.
Of Florida’s 67 counties, only the largest, Miami-Dade, may deviate from a state scale for commission pay. That level for the five largest counties is $95,523, which Broward, Orange, Palm Beach and Hillsborough all pay. We pay $6,000.
The state’s smallest county is Liberty, with 8,483 residents. It’s far smaller in population than Key Biscayne, Florida City or Miami Shores alone, yet Liberty’s commissioners get $24,530 yearly by state law.
In our second smallest county, Lafayette, with 8,618 residents, commissioners get $24,621.
Yet we’re stuck in 1957 at $6,000.
If you’ve wondered why bright professionals shun county office, imagine how they’d eat if they did run and managed to win.
Some used to argue that there’d be no way to defeat a commissioner anyhow and they’d never retire, so why recruit top talent to seek office? But that point went out the window when voters in 2012 set a two-term commission maximum.
Now there’s no institutional barrier to young talent running – if they could afford to win.
It’s up to the public to encourage that talent by pushing through a charter change to raise pay. Commissioners themselves won’t, for two reasons.
First, they’d seem self-serving, though truly the community would win by paying present commissioners fairly while making it possible for highly-qualified competitors to seek office.
Second, why encourage top-level candidates? If commissioners have figured out how to get by on $6,000, why open the door to those who need a real salary to do a real job?
It’s not that we don’t have good commissioners. We do. Some.
But we deserve better than good; we deserve great – folks with lots of brains, vision, common sense and ethics.
That’s a rare breed. Better than average doesn’t cut it.
It’s like the debate weeks ago when commissioners said our students are good enough to revamp the county’s official image in a global battle to stand out. Sure, our top students are very good – but that job needs the very best.
The same is true on a commission that must resolve such thorny issues as funding $12 billion in water and sewer work, a global sea trade battle that’s now mixed up with a soccer stadium and other unrelated seaport developments, rising sea levels not yet seriously dealt with, county pensions and benefits that threaten to overwhelm all other needs – all decisions that could upend our future.
Yes, our sitting commissioners can vote on all these. But are we paying them so that they have time to truly study the topics, and do we want them all at the table taking such far-reaching actions?
Wouldn’t we be far better off paying more than $6,000 and expecting more of those we elect?
It would cost $1.16 million more a year to pay by state scale, the same as the four other big counties. How many billions would it cost to choose wrong on a single key issue?
We can save peanuts by cheaping out commission pay, but that is likely to be a very expensive – and totally wrong – choice.
Civic leaders must initiate a pay raise. Nobody else will.
If you’ve been complaining about quality at county hall, the only viable option is to make it possible for our best talent to take a turn at solving vital dilemmas we will face.
Don’t run a candidate – run a pay raise campaign that can open the door to government by our best.
Alternatively, if you like the commissioners we already have, make sure we pay them fairly. Even elephants can’t make it on peanuts alone.