Challenge to a new mayor: push for smart commission pay
It’s time for 66 of Florida’s 67 counties to plug modest raises for elected commissioners into budgets for the year starting Oct. 1, but Miami-Dade won’t be doing so at budget hearings – and that is shameful and dangerous.
The Florida Constitution in 1885 ordered the state to set pay for county commissioners. That continues with a sole exception: as Florida’s first charter county, Miami-Dade in 1957 won the right to set its own pay level. But what was then a victory has become a curse.
Commission salaries vary by population. The bigger the county, the higher the pay.
This year, commissioners in our smallest county, Lafayette, population 8,501, get $25,926, least in Florida, while those in slightly larger Liberty County, population 8,915, receive $26,294. Commission pay tops out at $101,006 for the five counties of more than 1 million residents each.
All those commission jobs will pay more next month as the Florida Department of Management Services certifies an annual raise.
Did I say all? Yes, the computation covers Miami-Dade as well as the smaller 66 counties. But unlike the other 66, we ignore state-set salaries. As a global metropolis, we set our own pay level – a shameful $6,000.
Miami-Dade’s charter in 1957 set that level. That was OK when the job was part-time, population was a third of today’s, and county dealings were far less complex.
Now, with a Miami-Dade population of 2.7 million and global status, the 13 commissioners are not paid the $101,006 that state law provides for the biggest counties. Despite inflation and a far larger job, Miami-Dade commissioners still get $6,000.
That is unjust and an insult to commissioners, who all should spend more than 40 hours a week doing the people’s business. Even worse, it’s a danger to residents, who rely on commissioners to make policy for environment, housing, transportation, water & sewer, parks, public safety, air and sea ports, and far more, plus handle $8.9 billion yearly.
Just poring over legislation can take many hours. Then there’s outreach and meetings. If they act carelessly, commissioners might waste hundreds of millions or make uninformed policy.
But we pay them $6,000 for what should be at least 2,000 hours of public work. That’s $3 an hour – 41% of the $7.25 federal minimum wage and just 35% of Florida’s $8.56 minimum.
Commissioners shouldn’t seek the job for the pay but for the public service. But let’s be honest, it is a full-time job, and we need it full-time. How many people other than our 13 commissioners are legally paid 35% of the minimum wage?
Pay level now restricts commission service to four groups: the well-to-do; those who have no-show outside jobs (and whose employers’ aims can be a conflict); those who actually do earn their living on outside jobs (which cuts into commission time); and those who somehow leverage commission roles to a living (people who should never hold public office).
Just to match inflation, Miami-Dade under US Bureau of Labor Statistics data should have raised the original $6,000 commission pay to $56,080 by 2020. That’s comparable to the $55,387 Flagler County commission pay to serve only 107,511 residents.
The dangerous inequity in Miami-Dade commission salary has long been clear. Indeed, 14 efforts since 1961 have failed to get a raise, which requires a countywide vote. Usually, commissioners themselves kept the issue off the ballot.
Why would they do that? “The public has not felt the commissioners merited the increased salary,” current mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava told commissioners in a Dec. 26, 2017, meeting, adding that she estimated each commissioner works 70 to 80 hours a week in the job. If so, we are darn lucky to have them.
But in saying that voters wouldn’t buy a raise, those holding commission seats over the years also knew they were severely limiting contenders for their jobs to the few who could get by on $6,000.
That’s a good reason to pay commissioners more: to open the chance to serve to far more fellow citizens, particularly younger people who don’t already have fat bank accounts or no-show jobs.
Now, with six or seven brand-new commissioners after the upcoming election, is an ideal time to push to win reasonable pay for the work and time we need from a commissioner.
To do that, commissioners or outside petitioners must get a charter vote onto the ballot. Petitioning is costly, and no influence group is seeking a commission raise. The easier path is for commissioners themselves to put an amendment on the ballot. If that seems self-serving, they could structure it to start after the next commission election.
Paying each commissioner the state-set level would cost $1.3 million more a year, a mere rounding error in a $8.9 billion budget.
The danger in not paying them is having $3-an-hour workers continue to preside over $8.9 billion of your money. Paying fairly at least will let more elected officials devote full time to studying how to do that right. Isn’t that worth the rounding error?
Next year when the state lists commission salaries, Miami-Dade should be atop the list, not at the bottom: 23% of what Lafayette County, population 8,501, pays. The total of all 13 commission salaries here is $20,000 less than Lafayette pays its tax collector. How can we allow that to continue?
Mayoral candidates and current commissioners Esteban Bovo Jr. and Ms. Levine Cava would be doing a public service by each pledging if elected to initiate a pay raise drive for commissioners the first month in office. They both know the work they’ve put in as commissioners and could make an effective case. Will they step up?