Time for a do-over

The phrase "pigs at the public trough" has been thrown around too often and too easily in connection with the giant raises Jackson County's three commissioners gave themselves this month.

The commissioners have demanding jobs. They ought to be compensated well to do them.

That said, this is no defense of the 26 percent salary increases approved first by the budget committee (made up of commissioners and three citizens) and then by commissioners June 4.

Not even a slight one.

No, instead of defending themselves as they did in their weekly meeting Wednesday, when critics of the raise attempted to talk to them about it, it's time for commissioners to step outside the little world they inhabit at the county courthouse and into the world where everyone else lives.

It's true that elected officials as a group earn less than department heads and other managers employed by the county. That seems wrong from the viewpoint of those charged with setting salaries.

But from the outside, this decision looks like a billboard advertisement for out-of-touch government.

People all over the county — low income, middle income and now even some upper middle income — are scrimping as never before as they juggle unprecedented expenses for food, gas and just about anything else they might hope to buy.

Small businesses are failing. Homeowners are losing houses. Food banks are clogged with new people in need. Analysts have no comfort to share: Most think the economy will get worse before it gets better.

And workers? Most know they'd be lucky to get a cost-of-living increase in an atmosphere like this one. Five percent would be a windfall.

But 26 percent? That's an extreme pay increase any time. It should be unthinkable now.

This is the kind of decision that makes constituents crazy. With little control over the rising expenses that are eating up their own reserves, they see government merrily gobbling away at the public's.

So they approach officials, who respond by digging in defensively rather than listening and providing a thoughtful response to another point of view.

The thoughtful response here, by the way, would be to reconsider the 26 percent.

That's right: Even if you buy the idea it's time to fix the disparity between elected officials' salaries and other managers', commissioners ought to pull back on fixing it in one 26 percent swoop.

Even the state appears to understand that. The Legislature's Emergency Board said Thursday it wants to hold back some money earmarked for state employees' salary increases next year. The economy is too uncertain to give it all, officials said.

It's as uncertain in Jackson County as anywhere, something commissioners are perfectly positioned to understand.

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