Cambrian: Opinion

Fruit of a public servant’s labor isn’t just apples and oranges

It was an interesting juxtaposition: The Cambria Community Services District meeting began with the board president announcing that a proposed raise for the general manager had been pulled from the agenda.

It ended with board member Amanda Rice revealing she couldn’t afford to keep serving if meetings were held in the daytime.

A board member’s salary maxes out at $75 per day on the job or $450 a month, whichever is higher.

The general manager’s raise as proposed before the district’s April 28 board meeting — including a retroactive pay bump — would boost his annual salary (not including benefits) from $157,500 to $173,929.

Apples and oranges? Of course. The jobs are entirely different.

So are the jobs done by two different Jerrys: Gruber and Brown. Does Gruber — or the general manager of any services district — deserve to make a mere $58 less than the governor of California? One’s in charge of an unincorporated community of 6,032; the other governs a state of nearly 39 million.

You might as well ask whether Kobe Bryant deserves to make $25 million playing basketball for the L.A. Lakers, while the president of the United States makes just 16 percent as much.

Apples and oranges. Supply and demand.

But one can’t argue with the perception among some Cambrians: Their oranges have been squeezed, while some apples, to their way of thinking, are being treated like Steve Jobs. It’s expensive to live here. Rising water rates, even if justified, drive up costs for people on fixed incomes. Whether the general manager deserves a raise or not, few would dispute that it’s possible to live — comfortably — on an annual income of $157,000 a year, even in Cambria — where Gruber no longer lives and where most people don’t make nearly that much.

A matter of timing

Even if that weren’t the case, the board’s timing in suggesting a pay raise was tone-deaf, coming as it did shortly after the board raised water and sewer rates.

It should be noted that the rate increase won’t be used to pay the general manager’s salary. Not his old salary. Not a new, higher salary. More apples and more oranges. But you can talk about ledgers and accounting all you want, and it won’t change the public perception that the two are connected, especially when one comes right on the heels of the other.

Putting the item on the agenda was bound to create a backlash. But removing it only made matters worse — for both Gruber and his critics. It’s unclear why the item was pulled, but it’s bound to appear as though the board is second-guessing itself, making the general manager look like he’s been left out on a limb. But the move hurts critics, too, by depriving them of the chance to argue against the plan on the day of an actual vote. As it is, if the issue comes before the board again, they’ll have to head back down to the vets hall and state their opposition all over again. Given the level of anger at Thursday’s meeting, that isn’t good for anyone.

People have a reason to be angry. They’re upset, in part, because this isn’t the Lakers ownership paying Kobe Bryant’s salary from ticket sales and TV deals — revenue provided by fans who could just as easily stay home. It’s different here. The general manager’s salary is paid by Cambria residents, people who have no choice but to pay for the district’s services.

A lot of money

No matter how good a job Gruber is doing, $173,000 is a heck of a lot of money. The general manager himself acknowledged as much when he lamented that the district has spent about that much on legal fees in defending a lawsuit.

How did the price get that high? According to Director Greg Sanders, the proposal would put Gruber’s salary “right at where the market is.”

And there you have it. Whether you agree with Sanders’ assessment or not, the market is what’s determining this. Not what the district can afford. Not what community members think it’s worth. The market.

Gruber has every right to pursue the best deal possible. Just as a football coach at a public university does, even if he’s already making seven figures. Does that mean the football coach is worth 10 or 15 times as much as a full professor? I’ll leave you to answer that question.

Welcome to the auction

The fear is doubtless that, if he’s not paid enough, Gruber will go elsewhere and the district will need to find a replacement — probably via an extensive (and expensive) search process that would take several months. Then the new general manager would likely need a few months to get up to speed, and the district would have to hope he or she had the skills and temperament to do a very challenging job.

Valid concerns all.

But those concerns don’t alleviate the nagging perception among some in town that they’ve been dragged to an auction against their will to bid on something they’re not sure they can afford. Despite their protests, the bidding keeps going up, and so do sewer and water rates.

Meanwhile, people like Amanda Rice are finding it harder and harder to afford living here.

This may be a case of apples and oranges, but sometimes the apples taste rotten, and sometimes the oranges lose their appeal.

Stephen H. Provost is managing editor of The Cambrian. Reach him at 805-927-8896