Paying county commissioners more could cost us far less
By Michael Lewis
Here come those dratted Miami-Dade commissioners again plotting a pay raise.
It's their 12th try. So far, they're batting a perfect zero — failed every time.
Unfortunately, as taxpayers say no over and over to a raise, we're by far the poorer for it.
It's counterintuitive, but by not raising commission pay we're getting worse than we deserve and paying more for it even while we're cheating elected officials, bad or excellent, of fair pay.
Meanwhile, as we continue to pay the same $6,000 a year commissioners have been getting since 1957, we're keeping many of our best and brightest from office.
The result is that many incumbents run unopposed over and over, win over and over, and disappoint us over and over — but we have no choice because nobody without a side income can afford the job.
So while we question the merit of many commissioners, we've got ourselves to blame because we won't let most people run. To serve, you've almost got to be rich, retired, inattentive to your county role or outright crooked.
What a dilemma.
Yet we keep denying a living wage to public servants with huge powers.
Last time I checked, the county had more area than 60 nations, more people than 97 nations and, as Miami, more fame than most of our own nation.
If Miami-Dade were a separate nation, our gross county product of $93.4 million in 2005 would rank us 56th or 57th in the world, depending on whose figures you use, ahead of 133 countries. To use a yardstick very familiar locally, the county's economy is almost twice as large as Cuba's.
Yet we pay our commissioners least among the state's 67 counties.
Most others pay by a state formula based on population. Using it here, we'd have paid commissioners last fiscal year not $6,000 but $92,096.
But unlike other counties, we are so big that we get to ignore the formula — and so small that we pay peanuts.
Florida's least populous county, Liberty, has 7,957 residents — about as many as Florida City or North Bay Village. Yet its commissioners get $23,191 a year to oversee a county that doesn't need fulltime officials.
Second-smallest in Florida is Lafayette County, with 8,013 residents. While we pay peanuts, Lafayette grows them. Yet its commissioners get $23,463.
Third smallest is Glades County, with 11,175 residents. Its commissioners get $24,883.
Largest county by far in Florida is Miami-Dade, with 2,398,245 residents. To reiterate, we pay $6,000 — exactly the same as 53 years ago, when this community was far smaller and the commission was part time.
Today commissioners can't read all legislation and be informed to take an intelligent vote without working full time. Yet we won't pay for full time.
That means one of two things: either they don't know enough about what they're voting on most of the time or they're letting their staffs, not themselves, do the work of deciding what's right.
And good though the staff may be, we didn't elect them to decide. We elected commissioners who literally cannot afford the time to know what they should on voting day.
So when commissioners overlook key facts, it's not totally their fault. A slice of blame rests with taxpayers who decide commissioners are so ignorant that they're worth $6,000 tops. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's heartening that some commissioners last week decided to take a 12th try at decent pay. The whole commission now gets a crack at deciding terms of a ballot question and sending it to voters.
Truth to tell, it has often seemed that commissioners weren't pushing hard for a raise that voters would pass, not out of modesty but because they really want it to fail.
After all, significant pay would add election battles for commissioners who now are secure that, barring conviction for serious crime, they'll hold office for life because solid opponents can't live on $6,000 a year.
Some citizens have objected to a raise, citing perks that commissioners do get of more than $50,000 a year. But those perks can't pay a mortgage or put food on the table or send a child to college.
You just can't live on perks and publicity. If we want smart, attentive commissioners we'll have to open our wallets.
Even $100,000 would be little enough. It would cost the county $1.2 million more a year, but a better, more attentive commission could save us far, far more than that.
We could even fund the whole raise by cutting one hidden cost: staffers who study issues we'd like commissioners to probe themselves. More review by fulltime commissioners could mean smaller staffs.
It's perfectly clear: if you're unhappy with our commission, the easiest and most effective upgrade is to pay what commissioners should be worth — and then, from among a larger crop of candidates, elect people actually worth it.
And, if you're not unhappy, it's also perfectly clear: simple fairness demands that we pay far more.
The question is about to go to the full commission. Those with influence — who give big at campaign time, for example — would do well to urge commissioners to craft and then support the best possible package, certainly not less than the state's formula for Miami-Dade of $92,096.
Being small about pay doesn't make fiscal sense in a big-time county.