Letters to the Editor

Leaders act on public salaries with care and consideration

Adam Hill
Adam Hill

John Peschong’s factually selective Viewpoint (“County should set rules on how supervisors get pay increases,” March 22) begs for a response.

In 2009, when both Frank Mecham (a Republican who goes unmentioned in Peschong’s column) and I joined the Board of Supervisors, we were in year two of the county’s seven-year pain plan to balance its budget. The whole country was mired in terrible recession, and county government faced its biggest annual deficit ever — more than $30 million.

One of the first moves the board made was to cut its own salary by an equivalent of 5 percent. We did this knowing we had hard choices ahead, and we wanted to set an example. Raising our salaries while our friends and neighbors in the community suffered was unthinkable, and so we refused to even allow the board’s annual compensation comparison onto our agenda for the entire six years I have been part of the plan.

We also embarked on wide-ranging reform of pension and pay because we knew past practices were not going to be sustainable. I also feared that the populist resentment against public employees being stirred up around the country and even in the city of San Luis Obispo could lead to ballot measures that might take the hard work out of the hands of the duly elected. I feared the county’s prevailing wage ordinance would be threatened if we didn’t act.

And act we did, becoming a statewide leader in pension and pay reforms, none of which would have happened were it not for the cooperation and sacrifice of our county employees.

During this time of tough decisions, lasting the length of the recession, no one was laid off, no one was furloughed and we managed not only to balance our budgets, but we also ended up saving a great deal of money. We emerged from the terrible recession with the highest bond rating in the county’s history.

Now that times are better and our finances keep improving as moneysaving policy decisions continue to be effective, it’s understandable that our employees should want their salaries to keep up. While the board still holds a firm line, we have voted to stay competitive, protect the morale of our 2,600-employee organization and to restore the cut we made to our own salaries six years earlier.

Aside from floating the trial balloon of a wedge issue for the next local campaign he runs, the subtext of Mr. Peschong’s opinion piece is clear: The public sector should mirror the private sector in its compensation practices.

Well, when we undertook the reinterpretation of the prevailing wage ordinance, we did just that, comparing like jobs when possible and looking at the pay of the same jobs in counties similar to ours.

But ultimately, you do get what you pay for, and I have said from day one that the trend we too often see in local office is candidates who are well-off enough and/or well-retired, so they don’t even need their pay. Meaning: Only those with money will be able to run for and occupy office. That is not a criterion we should encourage or enable. If locally elected officials do a good job and show themselves to be responsible stewards of the community’s values, then they should be fairly compensated, and I certainly include City Council members in this thinking. We need to attract people of all ages and all economic strata.

While populist appeals to resentment against politicians and government itself are a staple of American politics, the local truth behind most of the guff is that many good people work hard every day to deliver vital services to the community. Among the many things missing from Peschong’s piece is aqualitative assessment of the job done managing the taxpayer dollars held sacred.

It’s one thing to say you’re for shrinking the size of government; it’s another thing to actually do it through keen qualitative judgments that lead to successful and efficient outcomes. That’s the key job of good governance, a too rare occurrence these days.

Rather than indulge in lazy resentment over salaries (something I never see Republican opinion-makers do when it comes to corporate executives) Peschong should encourage citizens to closely examine the actual, factual results of what they pay for after they elect leaders. Trust the people with truth.