Commissioners should take vows of service, not of poverty
By Michael Lewis
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Advocacy Group last week asked me the $88,919 question: Do I support paying county commissioners more?
They didn't ask only me, of course. They surveyed chamber members about the Sept. 5 vote to raise the pay of commissioners, which has been stuck at $6,000 since 1957.
But not only am I the only member so e-mail-challenged that I couldn't submit the questionnaire online, I'm also one of the few who has a newspaper in which to reply.
My answers will bring no surprises: Miami Today has supported a raise for more than a decade - less out of equity than as a way to permit far more residents to file for office without concurrently filing for bankruptcy.
Since privacy is therefore not an issue in this survey, here goes.
1. "Do you support the county commission salary adjustment of $88,919?"
To be fair, however, a change from $6,000 to $88,919 is hardly an "adjustment" - it's an increase of 1,382%, a figure opponents will latch onto, ignoring the fact that the $6,000 in 1957 had the same purchasing power as $41,710 today. So what's on the ballot is actually a proposed increase from $6,000 in 1957 to about $12,000 in that year, but adjusted for 49 years of inflation.
Moreover, as the value of the $6,000 we've been paying has eroded to only $882 in 1957 dollars, the job has ballooned to fulltime work to dig into all the issues on the commissioners' table. They say grace today over a budget of $6.8 billion and serve a population larger than 90 of the globe's 230 nations.
How could I not support that increase?
2. "Explain why or why not?"
I want to pay commissioners more because they're not good enough.
If that seems paradoxical, remember that I'm not trying to pay present officeholders more - I'm trying to permit more and more qualified people to seek the office. The raise is not intended as a reward - it's geared to give voters more choice.
Opponents of a raise cite commission ineptitude, but that's precisely the reason to pay more - to bring out better-prepared candidates.
3. "What would be a fair amount of compensation, excluding any benefits currently in place?"
The state's largest counties pay the same $88,919 that's on our ballot. State statute requires them to pay that much. Miami-Dade is privileged to be able to set any figure it wants - the only county in Florida with that discretion. We should use it wisely.
One way to analyze the issue is to say that we should match or exceed the pay in other large counties. Since we're biggest, we should probably pay most because the responsibility is largest.
Another way is to look at private enterprise. What would a company pay executives who spend $6.8 billion a year? Many times $88,919.
Or we could look at the commission as a board of directors instead of as managers. How much would directors in private enterprise get?
A survey of 315 tech and life-sciences companies showed the average director gets $30,000 a year as a retainer, $1,500 per meeting, stock-option grants of $10,000 per year plus more to serve on the audit and compensation committees. On this basis, a county commissioner attending 26 meetings and 26 committee meetings a year would get $118,000, more in key committee assignments.
So what would be fair? At least $100,000 - cut down from industry levels. Commission pay should indeed be less than in private enterprise because we should require of officeholders public service and sacrifice - but not a vow of poverty.
4. "Other comments."
It's unfortunate that a bid to create a strong-mayor system is on the ballot two months after fair pay for commissioners. Some strong-mayor partisans will soon denigrate commissioners to justify a change in the system. Tarring the commission during the strong-mayor campaign is sure to limit support for this vital raise for officials who now get about $3 an hour.
The chamber will need to differentiate between the two issues as it uses results of this survey to beat the drum for a long-belated pay raise.
Please add this column to your survey results. And thanks for asking.