The Public Payroll

Back before the economy tanked not many people griped about what government employees made, likely because not many people viewed the jobs as particularly exciting nor well-paying.  Since the economy tanked the public has pulled a 180 thanks in part to the fact that just having a job is something to celebrate and also to the fact that many governments are facing tremendous budget pressures.  Now people are paying very close attention indeed to what government employees are being paid.

The Winston-Salem Journal has a story about the compensation of Winston-Salem's 91 highest paid employees which totals $8.5 million.  Here's an excerpt from the story:

As it turns out, 21 full-time employees make at least $100,000, according to the report of Budget Director Ben Rowe. Earning between $75,000 and $100,000 are 70 full-time employees, according to the report. The total salaries of those 91 employees are valued at about $8.5 million, according to Rowe. They’re lawyers, managers, supervisors, chiefs, coordinators and other top-brass employees.

Excluding those 91 employees from the proposed 1.5 percent merit pay increase would save about $150,000, according to the report.

Cutting that amount would be merely symbolic, Council Member Dan Besse said. Besse, who had asked about the possible savings during a budget meeting last week, said he wanted to know because he opposes the idea of raising salaries the same year that the property-tax rate will be increased…

“The question then becomes: What’s the right balance on things like salaries?” Besse said. “Tentatively, I’m trending toward considering that we can’t simply say, ‘No increase for anybody this year.’ It appears we’re starting to experience problems with recruiting and retaining people in certain positions, like police officers.”

Is it fair to exclude the top level employees from the merit pay increases that the rest of the employees would enjoy to save a symbolic $150,000? Isn't the better question whether or not they did their jobs well, and if they did do their jobs well shouldn't they be compensated appropriately?

It's understandable that people would want to freeze or reduce pay in the face of budget crunches and potential tax rate increases. You might be asking, "How is that any different from a company freezing pay or laying off people when their sales drop or the company is losing money?" Well, the comparison really isn't that simple. Government employees don't get to pick their customers; they have to serve everyone. They also don't have much control over the income side of the ledger since tax revenues are tax revenues. What they can control are expenses and how effectively they do their jobs. If they do that are they to be punished?

Here's another point from the story that should not be lost in the shuffle:

To make up for the $7 million loss, the city would have to increase the tax rate by about 10 percent to 54.25 cents for every $100 of assessed value from the current rate of 49.1 cents. Rather, Garrity has proposed raising the city’s tax rate about 8 percent, from 49.1 cents for every $100 of assessed value to 53 cents.

Because of the revaluation, a large majority of city property owners would actually receive a lower tax bill even if the council members approve the increase in tax rate.

So in other words the symbolic freeze of the highest paid city employees wages would come despite the fact that many taxpayers won't be paying any more in taxes than they did last year.  Five years ago when these folks were largely viewed as average bureaucrats you probably wouldn't have seen this kind of discussion, but now that times are tough those same folks are viewed as overpaid executives ripe for symbolic flagellation. Doesn't quite seem fair to them.

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