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  • Last modified 54 days ago (March 28, 2019)

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Who's paying for all this pay?

We’ve confirmed it. There’s absolutely no truth to the rumor that county road crews will begin patching potholes with an almost inexhaustible supply of material: shredded copies of consultant reports purchased by the county.

It’s not that there aren’t enough reports to fill the holes. It’s that the reports are too flimsy to do any good. And that would be true even if they were printed on chunks of hot-mix asphaltic concrete instead of paper.

Consultants are the mushrooms of local government, springing up wherever money reigns to suckle off whatever loose tax dollars they can find. All the while they give cover to officials who can’t understand the issues they were elected to decide or who want to avoid responsibility for making controversial decisions.

Whether it’s looking into how the county pays for computer repair, what sort of health insurance it should give its employees, or how much it pays them, the county has become a steady source of income for so-called experts selling their expertise, whether it’s real or not.

The biggest case in point is the almost $18,000 study that commissioners commissioned last year in response to employee complaints that they — like all employees in every job — thought they were underpaid.

Rather than divvy the $18,000 up into raises for employees who merit them, the county wanted a system — one that was, in commissioners’ words, fair to employees and rewarded longevity, in some cases with only minimal concern for whether longevity actually resulted in better job performance.

Let’s ignore for the minute common sense — something we often have to do when considering what government at any level does.

Basic faith in basic American values says the best way to determine pay is by the free market. If the county is having trouble finding or keeping employees, it needs to pay more. If it’s losing them to other employers, it needs to pay what those employers pay — or fix whatever else it is about its jobs that cause employees to want to leave.

The problem is, for most county positions, there’s absolutely no shortage of applicants, and there’s almost no evidence of large groups of employees moving from this county to some other county to accept the same job.

Yet that’s exactly what the so-called study considered in estimating what each county employees should be paid. It compared Marion County pay scales to pay scales in other counties.

Lost in the discussion was just which counties were compared. Dickinson and Chase, just to the east and west? Nope. They declined to share information, maybe because they thought the whole deal was bogus.

Instead, eight of the 13 counties for which all positions were compared were larger than Marion County — most of them, much larger. And nearly all of them were nearer to urban areas, where cost of living is higher and competing private-sector jobs more prevalent.

Surprise, surprise. They pay more.

True, Morris County also made this list, but when was the last time you heard of a Marion County employee quitting to take a higher paying job in Morris County — which we aren’t even sure pays more, less, or the same. The report doesn’t provide that kind of detail.

Ah, you say, but base pay isn’t what the report really is about. It’s about something called “compression” — the notion that longevity raises have increased the pay of rank-and-file workers to the point that they sometimes are being paid more than supervisors with less seniority.

There’s two ways to address a problem like that. If money is no object, give supervisors a lot more money. If, on the other hand, you’re actually trying to be responsible with what you spend, perhaps the answer is that those seniority raises weren’t such a great idea in the first place.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about merit raises for doing the job better or cost-of-living raises to keep up with inflation. Such raises are separate and frequently awarded. These are raises simply for doing the same job for a longer period of time, sometimes with the benefit of county-paid training.

Other bureaucracies have a way to deal with this. Take, for example, the “up or out” policy of the military. If you’ve been in a particular job classification for long enough, you either get promoted to a job with more pay — and, importantly, more responsibility — or you stay where you are, maxed out on the scale, or are forced to leave.

True organizational experts — the kind who actually study such things rather just than sell reports — will tell you that the biggest challenge institutions face are from people who aren’t advancing up the ladder and have settled for a job that doesn’t have the headaches of leadership but which, because of experience, gives them an ability to become obstructionist bureaucrats.

Where the county has trouble, when it does, is in getting people who are willing to accept more responsibility. Why take on more responsibility when your pay will continue to increase at regular intervals, above and beyond inflation, regardless?

The whole idea of seniority raises is rooted, as most commissioners appear to be, firmly in the middle of the last century. Ask anyone in the workplace today what seniority means. In most cases, it means you lose your job because you get paid more to do the same thing that some young rookie would do for a much smaller paycheck.

But that’s the real world, where taxpayers live, not the government world, which seems to be governed by a doctrine other than democratic capitalism. Systems like those behind the proposed county pay scale have a name — a name most commissioners wouldn’t be comfortable with: socialism.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified March 28, 2019

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