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Front Page » Opinion » A Raise For County Commissioners Is Only Fairto Taxpayers

A Raise For County Commissioners Is Only Fairto Taxpayers

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Written by on May 18, 2006

By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade commissioners for the eighth time are asking voters to raise their pay. Let’s hope the eighth time is the charm.

Since 1957, commissioners have gotten $6,000, lowest in the state, although their responsibility is heavier than any other commission’s.

They oversee a $6.8 billion budget and a landmass larger than 65 nations’ and serve a population larger than about 100 nations’, a labor that for some of them is full-time.

That massive responsibility should, in fact, be full-time for all of them, but few can work 2,000 hours a year for $6,000. That’s $3 an hour, less than half the legal minimum wage and far less than they’d get flipping burgers. Forget for the moment that some commissioners may not be qualified to flip burgers – because you get what you pay for.

That’s the problem – we get what we pay for. While some of our commissioners are conscientious, some intelligent, some totally ethical – yes, they are! – you need more than the fingers on one hand to count the commissioners who have left in disgrace or to jail. It was the right job for them – $6,000 and all they could steal.

The fact is, for what we pay, we have a great commission. After all, how many star employees would you have at $3 an hour?

Some observers might say a bunch of clowns doesn’t deserve more than $6,000. Forget for the moment whether that’s a fair characterization. That’s not the issue. The question is not: What do present commissioners deserve? It’s: What kind of commissioners do we deserve?

The commission has put on the Sept. 5 ballot a raise to $89,000. Don’t we deserve commissioners worth at least $89,000? Shouldn’t we have $89,000 decision-makers spending $6.8 billion instead of $3-an-hour thinking? It would be a big step up.

Many will object that just paying more doesn’t elect more deserving candidates. They’re right.

But with seven commissioners up for fall re-election, the promise of $89,000 instead of $6,000 might lure challengers who couldn’t afford to work for virtually nothing, broadening the potential for an upgrade. Sure, incumbents usually win, but a pool of higher-quality challengers might overcome that.

Yes, a raise has been tried seven times and seven times voters have said no. Two years ago, the Miami Herald opposed a raise, yet it almost passed. This time, that paper is backing a raise. That might be the tipping point. (Miami Today has been backing a raise for more than a decade.)

Voters should aim for not just quality candidates but persons who will serve full time. A pay raise won’t by law mandate full-time work, but if it passes, voters should ask candidates about their outside jobs.

Most people can’t serve the public full time for $6,000 unless they’re rich or plan to make a bundle under the table, as some past commissioners have. But at $89,000 plus current fringe benefits of about $40,000, we should expect commissioners to forego outside jobs. That’s fair, even if the best of them could earn far more elsewhere. We should ask some sacrifice to hold office but not a vow of poverty.

The raise would cost taxpayers $1.1 million a year. But just one better-qualified candidate who cast just one deciding vote on one key issue could save that much and more in a flash.

Fair pay, in other words, is a great investment in Miami-Dade’s future.

Low pay alone doesn’t create inefficiency. Low pay alone doesn’t weaken judgment. Low pay alone doesn’t trigger corruption. But $3 per hour paves the way for all three.

Commission Chairman Joe A. Martinez was quoted as saying of the increase, "Do we deserve it? Absolutely."

Close observers might quibble.

But that’s not the issue. It’s not about what commissioners deserve but what taxpayers deserve. We deserve more than $3-per-hour thinking or $6,000 and all you can steal.

We, the taxpayers, deserve $89,000 commissioners and full-time attention to Miami-Dade County’s affairs by commissioners who are worth what we pay them.

We’ve had $3-an-hour quality far too long.