San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
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January 25th, 2009
Process justifies county pay raises

This Martian Life: A Column
Managing Editor

“Step back in time; look closely at the child in the very arms of his mother; see the external world reflected for the first time in the yet unclear mirror of his understanding; study the first examples which strike his eyes; listen to the first words which arouse within him the slumbering power of thought; watch the first struggles which he has to undergo; only then will you comprehend the source of his prejudices, the habits, and the passions which are to rule his life. The entire man, so to speak, comes fully formed in the wrappings of his cradle.”

-Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville wrote those words in the early 1800s, while writing his landmark book Democracy in America. He came here to study the relatively newborn United States. He had a passion for democracy as it evolved right before his eyes in the early days of our nation. The country he observed then is not so different that ours today.

We still have an inherent mistrust of power and a predisposition towards believing politicians are inevitably liars, corrupt or both. Journalists are by nature professional skeptics, so we can’t wait to pounce if we can prove it. As far as corruption or dishonesty are concerned, in the eyes of many, it is not a question of “if” but “when”. This has been our generational cradle in a post-Watergate, post-Clintongate, post-“mission accomplished” world. This is where we were formed.

Recently a new citizens study was released saying that county officials should be earn something more along the average wage for similar officials in other comparatively sized counties. In that study’s wake, county commissioners have accepted recommended pay increases.

Obviously, some citizens are outraged and I can see their point. These are some of the toughest economic times we have ever had to endure. A raise for public servants has a very “Let them eat cake” quality to it.

However, have we considered that it might be the fair thing to do and that it was done in a reasonably transparent manner? A group of professionals and citizens in Hays County did a very thorough study and reached, in my opinion, reasonable conclusions and suggestions.

Being a public servant in this country is one of the most thankless jobs imaginable. Political campaigns are basically a grueling prolonged job interview. The only certainty at the end (if you win) is someone telling you how bad you are at you job. Most of the time this person actually voted for you. Some devote their entire lives to catching you in the ultimate “gotcha” moment. It is life under a microscope.

It takes two kinds of people to put up with that – people who honestly want to serve their communities, and people who just want to climb the ladder. I’m sure you have your own opinions about who is who around here. Either way, both types could probably make a lot more money somewhere else.

My point is these people are not mere indentured servants. They take time away from more lucrative opportunities to do a thankless and often painful job, telling good friends “No,” or deciding which agency gets to be funded that year. These are not easy choices, and they have lasting repercussions.

If we want the best and the brightest as our elected officials, we have to compensate them according in a manner consistent with the field. I don’t want anyone getting rich from public service, but I also don’t want bright, imaginative and pragmatic people dissuaded from public service because of a pay cut. Therefore, they should be compensated equal to their peers.

I cringe at the though of public servants voting themselves raises. That’s why I believe Hays County acted in an ethical way to avoid that. They took the process and study out of their own hands and gave it to some of the people they represent. They were also smart enough to have both educated and anything-but-ordinary citizens.

The Hays County Commissioners Court is far from perfect. The meetings sometimes are about as exciting as watching bread rise in an oven. They go on for hours. I’ve personally covered meetings that ran from 9 a.m. to around 6 p.m or later. The next time you can’t sleep, download their agenda packet. NyQuil has nothing on that Tolstoy-sized slumber inducer.

However, love them or hate them, they are there every week. While we can’t, nor should we, line up behind every choice they make, I think it’s fair to recognize an act of good government when it happens, and I think the court did the right thing in this matter.

Our cradle taught us skepticism, and that is an essential part of democracy. But it need not be applied to the point of becoming fanatical and irresponsible. These are tough economic times, and maybe even our elected officials might need a little help, just like the rest of us.

As far as accepting the raises, or not, that’s up to the officials and is solely within each person’s conscience. The real question is, “Will those raises be earned in the days to come?” With all the challenges facing our growing county, it bears watching.

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0 thoughts on “Process justifies county pay raises

  1. Sorry, Sean. It also is up to the people of this county to verbalize against a 14 percent salary increase for county personnel.

    I also believe people should be awarded for doing a good job; however, giving our commissioners a raise because other districts pay a higher wage to their commissioners is absurd.

    Whatever happened to being fiscally conservative, especially in severe economic times?

    A “process” in itself does NOT justify county salary increases. This “point” you are trying to make illustrates part of the problem in this county. Apparently we have lost sight of REAL priorities.

  2. I never said that the process justified the raises alone. I support the process and think it was done in a manner that did take the feelings of citizens into account, but what the committee recommended was to bring pay for county executives in line with other counties. So it’s not a “higher wage” based on a good or bad job, but an adjustment so their pay is more in line with what other commissioners and county execs make in Texas. This I fully support as well.

    If anyone is actually interested in reading the report issued by the citizens committee on this topic it can be found on the county website.

  3. If the President of the United States was sensitive to the situation of taking pay raises in this economy and Obama determined not to accept the raises, so should our county commissioners.

    I have read the report. What will reading the report do with regard to the need for fiscal restraint?

    You keep mentioning “the report” as if it is some Bible we must follow. It merely is a guide of similar salaries. No where is it a law that we must provide a salary to our commissioners that is comparable to another district.

    Again I must emphacize that the county must be FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE during these hard times on various county issues and in the best interests of our community at-large.

    We just raised the pay of our law enforcement personnel.

    We just voted for a $207 Million road bond package.

    Our taxes are increasing.

    Businesses throughout the county are losing sales and are cutting-down on employees.

    Sales tax revenues are down.

    There are other issues commissioners are reviewing that also have the potential to spend more county tax dollars during a critical economic time, in which CLEARLY we should be holding-back expenditures and showing more fiscal restraint.

  4. By the way, Sean, if you believe what your statement, “I never said that the process justified the raises alone.” you may want to consider changing the title of your commentary, “Process justifies county pay raises” to something more in line with your real perspective.

  5. I didn’t give it that title Peter, but I see nothing wrong with your arguments about fiscal restraint. However, I think that law enforcement should always be paid what they are worth, so I don’t mind that pay raise and we did vote for the road bonds, so that was entirely in our hands.

    The column complimented the process used by the county to determine compensation and acknowledged that public service shouldn’t equal indentured servitude. I deliberately did not speak to the political ramifications of accepting a raise other than a hope it would be earned. I don’t think the report is a Bible either. I think it’s an act born from good government and should be recognized as such.

    There’s no law saying they have to, but it does seem fair to me. The commissioners and county executives themselves will have to answer to the voters for their actions and undoubtedly this will factor into their choices, but I’m just not going to issue blanket condemnation for taking compensation that was subject to public review and is comparable to other in the same field. I’ll leave that to the voters.

  6. My point exactly is that we provide tax dollars to needed issues, like law enforcement, et. al., and all I am saying is that we need more fiscal responsibility and part of that is putting a hold even on things we may need, but can’t afford to keep spending on — hence, making clear decisions based on REAL priorities.

    I continue to question [and want others to, as well] whether paying out a 14-percent raise to commissioners and other employees right now is one of those when so many people are losing their jobs, not getting raises themselves, etc., etc.

    “Timing is everything.”

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  8. 71,400 more jobs were lost today, and those are just the ones that were reported. The actual figure is much higher. It’s very scary out there right now. This crisis is very real and people are losing their homesteads and some are dying, for lack of money for basic health care. A woman I know in San Marcos, Texas took her own life because of her on-going health and financial problems.

    I think Sean’s arguments might be very valid….if this were the 90’s. Or maybe a few years from now. But I agree with pstern…. timing is everything. Now is not the time. No doubt people will be very resentful after this move.

    Did this study really cost $10,000, as someone else mentioned? And I would have done it for half that!

  9. “Being a public servant in this country is one of the most thankless jobs imaginable.”

    It is if you are NOT doing it well!

    Hey! How come you guys can place a link but the rest of us can’t?

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