The personal indignation over setting government salaries hatched 25 years ago in the city of Fulton, a canal town north of Syracuse, N.Y. It used to be home to a Miller brewery, a Nestle chocolate factory and some political judgment that left you wondering if the municipal leaders had been imbibing or simply trusting that everything in town was sugar-coated.
On a snowy December morning, the mayor called a trio of print journalists to his office to present the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year and even joked there was no money included for a raise for himself.
He was right, at least not as a line-item. A week after the council's public hearing and unanimous approval of the budget and property tax rate, the council met again and, with the mayor's blessing, handed themselves an early Christmas present. They took money from a reserve account and gave a salary increase to themselves, the mayor and the city attorney.
The joke was on the taxpayers who did not get a chance to comment on the salary scale during the public hearing. Despite the deception, you had to credit the council for one thing. They were on the record voting for the increase even with their bumbling explanation for how it was handled.
I left the snow behind a few years later and learned of Florida's even goofier salary structure for public officials. Those elected countywide get pay raises automatically as the population increases. The archaic formula conveniently allows local county commissioners, school board members and constitutional officers to escape public scrutiny for the remuneration they accept.
We've all heard the chirping.
The state sets the salary. There is nothing I can do. Honest.
Until now. For the second time this decade, Florida's legislators want school board members to decide their own wages. Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek detailed the little caveat that was just approved during the special legislative session. School board members can vote to reduce their salaries or refuse raises. Top school board salary in the state is just less than $41,000 annually. Pasco board members earn $37,714. In Hernando, the pay is 32,819.
Political payback? Absolutely. Forget the spin that it is intended to give greater flexibility to school boards absorbing spending cuts. When educators squawk about budget reductions from Tallahassee, the Legislature responds with a little heat by putting school board salaries under scrutiny. They did it in 2002 and again last week.
School board members are right to feel indignant, but not because they should escape such accountability. They just shouldn't be singled out for the exclusive microscope. Commissioners, sheriffs and others going though budget-cutting exercises should be required to set their own salaries, too.
"Why not everybody?'' Hernando School Board member Sandra Nicholson asked reporter Solochek.
Knowing the petty vindictiveness of legislators, you would have presumed they would have done something similar to county commissioners in 2007 when the state imposed spending caps on local governments.
But hey, who wants to do that when, periodically, county commission become the next career step for term-limited legislators. Commissioner David Russell in Hernando, for example, is a former state representative and Sen. Victor Crist represents much of Pasco, but is expected to run for Hillsborough County Commission in 2010.
Hernando Commissioner Jeff Stabins also is a former state representative and in 1996 introduced a bill in Tallahassee that would require all local commissioners, school board members and constitutional officers to formally accept or reject, in writing, the annual increases. The bill, largely symbolic, died a quick death amid lobbying from the Florida Association of Counties.
Now, as a commissioner, Stabins said he believes the bill's intent was appropriate.
"I don't see anything wrong with us having to vote yes or no,'' he said.
Frankly, commissioners should vote on their salaries. City councils do it. Some even let the electorate determine their compensation. In New Port Richey, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2007 referendum setting a new salary scale for Council and mayor that would have boosted their wages by $500 a month, or 83 percent, for a combined cost of $15,000 annually. Contrarily, Port Richey voters authorized higher council salaries in 2001.
In Brooksville, former Vice Mayor Frankie Burnett twice tried to raise council salaries. In 2005, he suggested the monthly pay of $450 be increased to $600. Eighteen months later, he tried new math and calculated council members should be paid the minimum hourly wage of $6.40 for a 40-hour work week. It would boost the wages from $5,400 annually to $13,312.
"That would be a little excessive,'' Council member Lara Bradburn recalled this week.
Indeed. Neither suggestion gained traction, but Burnett's proposals were debated (and discarded) publicly.