County Commissioner's vote for a Pay Raise - A study in courage? (written June 28, 1998)

Note: I, like a lot of other folks, first called the raise a 300% raise. It is in fact a 200% raise. This was brought to my attention after I gave the speech. Sorry for the error.

Last Thursday, June 21, 1998, the Rutherford County Commission voted 11-8 to give themselves and future commissioners a 300% pay raise. They raised their pay for the monthly meeting from $100 to $300. Their committee meeting pay will go from $50 to $150 a meeting. This will reportedly raise the annual payroll of the county commission to as much as $128,500.

A commissioner typically serves on two committees, so his or her annual pay was changed from $2,400 a year to $7,200. I can find a lot of uses for $4,800 a year. I bet everyone in this county could. A lot of people making $30,000 a year would love to get a 16% raise, which would yield the same yearly gain in income.

Steve Sandlin, who is running this year unopposed, made a point during committee meetings about commissioners' pay and the time that they work, noting it is not just during meetings. "They're asked about county business at restaurants, church, work and other places where they answer constituents' questions." he was quoted as saying. Mr. Sandlin, when you put up your first election billboard or placed your first lawn sign, you willingly took on that 'burden'.

Thousands of people volunteer their time in this community to help everyone from the elderly to the very young. Meals-On-Wheels volunteers, scouting Den Mothers, Little League baseball coaches, or soccer moms all do their voluntary duties out of caring and commitment, not financial gain. One would hope that the county commissioners felt the same urge for public service and ran for the office to contribute to their communities and not their own back pockets.

Of the 11 commissioners voting yes, four of them are not running for re-election. Four others are running unopposed. That leaves 3 commissioners brave enough to vote yes while facing re-election, Carol Cook in District 5, Anthony Johnson in District 10 and Robert Goodwin in District 13. I would not call this a ringing mandate for the raise.

Now we are being told that other boards, such as the highway commissioners and school board, also are having their pay trebled. According to an article in the June 15, 1998 Daily News Journal, the highway commission's annual payroll will go from $8,050 to $24,150 per year. The total pay of the school board could go from $18,900 to $56,700. State law seems to dictate that these panels pay be based on the county commissioner's pay. The county commission has also discussed the possibility of making other boards such as the Public Building Authority per-pay instead of voluntary. So, with one 11-8 vote, the cost of having just the county commission, highway commission and school board meetings went to $209,350 A YEAR from $69,780, a difference of $139,570.

To put this raise in perspective, the 2+ years struggle I have been involved in to get Oakland and Riverdale High Schools long overdue athletic facilities built would cost the taxpayers 4.2 million dollars. For a 30 year bond, that would be about $150,000 annually in bond payments. It was noted at the October of 1997 budget committee meeting that the bond issue of $4.2 million over 30 years would add 4 to 5 cents to the property tax rate. Does that mean that these pay raises are going to cost us 4 to 5 cents? If the bond for the stadiums were going to cost that, then I would infer that the pay raises would as well.

It seems rather strange that this same elective body can takes years to debate (with no decision made at this time) a $150,000 annual bond payment for football stadiums. They slash Sheriff Jones budget to the point he opens the new jail undermanned. Yet, they then turn around and bring to a vote and pass in the matter of minutes a $139,570 annual (and infinitely annual, unlike a bond issue) increase in expenditures. The Blackman High School project has been micro-managed to the point the school will open at least one year late. Why didn't the pay raise issue go through the same time-consuming, ad-nauseam decision making process? The fact that it had a direct impact on the commissioner's lives, unlike a school or athletic facility, may have been a contributing factor. $139,570 could add two more teachers and two more sheriffs' deputies with room to spare.