Let’s start out by saying lots of public officials are underpaid. State legislators, for instance, barely make $17,000, which is chump change.
You get what you pay for. If remuneration is pathetic, then you limit the number of working stiffs willing to step up, so you end up with the retired, the rich, some thoughtful do-gooders and perhaps some looking to walk off with anything that’s not nailed down.
That said, I must bear grudging admiration to DeKalb County’s commissioners, whose vote Tuesday to give themselves a whopping pay raise of nearly 60 percent took a gargantuan dose of clueless audacity.
The commissioners quickly voted 6-1 (Commissioner Nancy Jester was the 1) toward the end of the meeting without debating the matter, putting it on the public agenda or having it go through the normal committee review process. They did the “legal” thing and let the public know — in an ad in agate type in the Champion newspaper.
“It was so obvious this was a setup to get it in without controversy or much publicity,” said Joe Arrington, a resident who attends almost every meeting. In fact, earlier in the same meeting he had complimented commissioners for holding off on the matter.
Little did he know.
The commissioners’ pay will rise from $40,530 to $64,637 starting Jan. 1. It will make them the highest-paid legislative body in metropolitan Atlanta.
The move is getting them hammered from almost every side — residents, cops, legislators. Even commissioners in other counties are raising their eyebrows, although they’re probably a bit envious.
DeKalb commissioners say they have a lot to do. There are meetings and more meetings. There are endless phone calls with constituents concerning zoning disputes, public safety matters, potholes and barking dogs. There is constant reading of mind-numbing reports. And then there are more meetings.
Only two of the commissioners seem to have a steady outside gig, so perhaps $40,530 isn’t a lot to live on.
Except … that’s roughly what starting cops make, which is why I said the police are hopping mad. The sanitation workers make less, and I’m sure they’re griping too.
“Do they deserve more money? Maybe so,” said Jeff Wiggs, a retired DeKalb cop who heads the local Fraternal Order of Police. “But our main heartburn is they should be the last ones to get paid. You lead by taking care of your troops first.”
Police were given a 3 percent raise this year and several ranks of police were given raises last year, but not everyone. Wiggs argues that the department is falling behind other neighboring agencies’ pay and it’s hard to hold onto young cops.
Commissioners had hoped that legislators would do their bidding and increase the pay. But apparently, legislators were either dragging their feet or unhappy with the task.
Now the DeKalb board has performed the impossible: They’ve united Republicans and Democrats.
“There’s no way we’d have given them 60 percent. No way,” said state Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Dem from south DeKalb.
State Sen. Fran Millar, a north DeKalb Republican, said, “I don’t want to hear how many hours they work. They knew what they were getting into when they started.”
The county, with indictments for political corruption and some plain old dysfunction, had been in a spiral. But it has been on a slow upward trend during the past three years with four new commissioners and a new, competent CEO. Now, this 60 percent pay hike will undo some of the hard-fought goodwill that has been achieved.
Commissioner Steve Bradshaw, who committed a public service by defeating a hot mess of a commissioner in 2016, understands that commissioners will take it on the chin.
“I’ve gotten emails saying, ‘I’ll never vote for you again!’ ” Bradshaw said. “If someone wants to hold it against me, fine. We’re big boys and big girls.”
He said the workload is usually more than 40 hours a week. He said two job opportunities dissipated in the past year because there was a potential conflict of interest and because employers don’t like public gigs overtaking private ones.
“You don’t want to go back to the ways where (commissioners) are not aboveboard,” he said.
First-term Commissioner Greg Adams, a former cop, said he works just about every day on his commission post. He said it was well-known that the board wanted a raise. “We were transparent,” he said of the process.
I think “opaque” might be a better word.
Longtime Commissioner Jeff Rader also mentioned the workload and said it’s difficult to keep an employer happy while throwing yourself into county work. He complained there’s a double standard — that legislators are always sneaking bills through at the last minute or using subterfuge to get their way.
“When they do it, they’re statesmen,” he said. “When we do it, it’s slimy.”
I called around to various counties. The four commissioners in neighboring Gwinnett earn $46,200 and the full-time chairman gets $58,000.
The 15 Atlanta City Council members earn $60,000 and the council president gets a bit more. In 2012, Atlanta’s council members voted themselves a 50 percent increase. They, too, caught hell from the cops.
Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said he was a lawyer and an Atlanta city councilman in the 1990s and just about wore himself out.
“After a while you dial back; you realize you don’t have to meet with every single citizen,” said Morris. He said Fulton commissioners earn between $40,000 and $42,000.
He acknowledged that Fulton has had most of its governmental functions taken over by cities, so commissioners there don’t have to wrestle with the amount of work and issues that those in other counties must.
Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, a senior Delta Air Lines pilot, says the commissioners there earn from $47,000 to $50,000.
“The amount of work (for a commissioner) at a large metro county is like a full-time job,” he said. “I work more at the county than at my pilot job.
“But if you see this as a job, then you’ll think about issues differently. I know it sounds hokey. But it’s public service.”