Thursday Column — Supervisor Pay

So the Linn County Board of Supervisors, all but one, proved me wrong. They didn’t understand what’s at stake.

But I was hardly surprised as I watched the County Compensation Board vote to freeze supervisor pay at $87,622. That’s what four out of five supervisors wanted. And it proved once again that in Iowa, when elected officials say “jump,” most county compensation board members ask only “how high?”

Oh, some tried. Board member David O’Brien tried to force the supervisors to live up to last year’s broken pre-election promise to cut their salary to $70,000. New Supervisor Ben Rogers argued in favor of the cut, insisting that to do otherwise would be breaking faith with hoodwinked voters. But O’Brien was the only one who voted for his motion.

Business owner Mary Quass argued for a reasonable 10 percent cut. But she was also outvoted.

So the freeze prevailed, as expected. But there was still some drama.

It’s too bad Oscar nominations are already settled, because the academy should have seen Supervisor Linda Langston’s heartfelt but tardy mea culpa. She stood up to take responsibility for last year’s cynical salary bait and switch. “I will personally take the hit,” Langston told the board. How courageous, was the reply.

I like her, I really like her, but the apologetic performance would have been more believable in, say, October. I give it two thumbs down.

We heard a lot about how the supervisors deserve their paycheck. There were reams of figures and comparisons to other counties and talk of how you can’t shortchange the captains of a $100 million enterprise.

And a freeze truly represents sacrifice in tough times. That must sound pretty funny to people without jobs or homes.

But some calculations were missing. How about this: supervisors made $61,872 in Fiscal 2000, according to the Iowa State Association of Counties. So between 2000 and 2009, supervisor pay rose about 41 percent.

Between 2000 and 2007, the latest number available, median household income in Linn County grew from $48,597 to $53,076, or just more than 9 percent. Supervisor pay grew 4 times faster.

Walking away from the poker table with the jackpot is a pretty sweet brand of sacrifice. Deal me in.

Also missing was the value of public good will. Every elected official carries an invisible bag of good will, or what President Bush famously called “political capital.”

Expanding the bag is important. That’s because, someday, you’ll have to spend some of that capital doing something tough that people don’t like. The majority of our supervisors just sold a big chunk of good will for $17,000bucks.

That’s hardly the kind of shrewd deal making you’d expect from the captains of a $100 million enterprise.

And, boy, do the supervisors need political capital.

They’re asking voters next month for a sales tax increase. If a new county office building is needed, they’ll probably have to ask voters someday to issue bonds. But how damaged, now, is the county’s brand? They may get left holding their empty bags.

Sure, the supervisors got $87,622. Now they have to start paying for it.

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