Boardman: Believe it or not, the job of supervisor deserves a living wage
July 11, 2014
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— George Boardman
Times are good in Nevada County, at least for the top dogs at the Rood Center.
The county board of supervisors has approved a $200 million budget for 2014-15, a 9-percent increase that includes pay raises for the county's top earners. The increases, most of them for people already making six-figure salaries, range from 10.5 percent for county CEO Rich Haffey to 5 percent for District Attorney Cliff Newell. Most of the county's other elected officials received 7.2-percent increases.
While some of these people are getting six-figure salaries to manager single-digit staffs, they haven't received a pay increase since 2009, and some of them took voluntary pay cuts or put off pay increases during the recession. In any case, it's nice to see the county CEO now earns more than Grass Valley's city manager.
Supervisors Terry Lamphier and Richard Anderson voted against pay raises for the other elected officials. "I understand the equity increases for the line staff, but it's not clear why electeds should get it, too," Anderson said. "… they should have to argue for them before the board."
I think a salary of $50,000 a year would be enough to entice younger people to take a break from their careers and run for supervisor ...
"I want to see people who want to serve the public, who are not just there for the money," Lamphier said. "It is, in fact, public service."
But they were singing a different tune when the supervisors voted 5-0 directing county Human Resources Director Charlie Wilson to "explore options" for increases in pay to the supervisors. Three of the supervisors made it clear what they think those options should be.
"People think it's a part-time job, but it's not," said Chair Nate Beason. "How much does the county value what we do? I don't think anybody works any harder than we do." Supervisor Hank Weston added that the job is "seven days a week; my phone is always ringing."
Lamphier, who won't benefit from any increase because he's leaving office in January, addressed what I think is the real issue: "If only retirees with pensions or people who are independently wealthy can afford to serve on the board, we are eliminating younger people who may want to serve but who have mortgages to pay or kids to put through school."
For perhaps the first and last time, Eddie Garcia of the Nevada County Tea Party agreed with him. "The salaries of the board are ridiculously low," he said. "They need to be brought up to speed so more young candidates will be drawn in."
The supervisors currently earn base pay of $39,446 a year (the board chair gets $41,419), a figure that hasn't increased since 2003. Looking at what neighboring counties pay their supervisors doesn't offer any insight into whether the current salary is fair or not. But one thing is clear: It's hard to support a family on that kind of money.
The current makeup of the board illustrates the point. Three of the five supervisors are drawing state and federal pensions that probably exceed the money they earn as supervisors, and the other two were self-employed when they got elected, giving them the flexibility to adjust their work hours around the requirements of their "part-time" jobs.
If you take the job seriously, being a supervisor is more than a part-time job. Attending the board meetings is just the tip of the iceberg. A conscientious supervisor studies and researches the issues before a vote and participates in the back-and-forth required to achieve consensus on major issues.
Then there are the constant letters, phone calls and emails from concerned or aggrieved constituents. None of the supes have paid staff to filter out the nut cases and troublemakers; they have to do it themselves. Then there's the endless community functions you're expected to attend.
Despite all that, there are people in the community who would run for the job if it paid more money. But if you can't live on $40,000 a year or don't have an indulgent spouse who can carry the financial load, you're out of the running.
So we get reruns of what we saw in last month's two races for supervisor: A candidate who's collecting a pension, two contenders who are eligible for Social Security if they're not collecting it already, a retired executive, and one 40-year-old.
I have nothing against seniors or people who collect Social Security—I plead guilty on both counts—but the economic realities of being a supervisor skews representation toward the oldest segment of the population.
We need some young blood — and younger ideas — at the Rood Center. If nothing else, we need a greater sense of urgency about pushing the kind of economic development that creates the well-paying jobs that will keep young adults in the community.
I think a salary of $50,000 a year would be enough to entice younger people to take a break from their careers and run for supervisor, but a 26-percent increase in pay doesn't pencil out politically. I'd like to see at least a 10-percent increase this year, followed by annual increases until the salary resembles a living wage.
If you don't think the current roster of supervisors are worth that kind of money, you know what you can do about it.
George Boardman is a member of The Union Editorial Board and lives in Lake of the Pines. His columns appear in The Union on Mondays.
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