Monday, March 19 , 2018, 6:31 am | Fair 39º


Randy Alcorn: Santa Barbara County Supervisors Present Themselves with Generous Christmas Gift

Sometimes, government feeds at the public trough with such obvious gluttony that it confirms condemnations of its fiscal irresponsibility.

Earlier this month, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, in a quick vote, gifted itself a nearly 12 percent pay raise. At the same time, it also spread the joy of Christmas to five other elected officials, giving them raises ranging from 4 percent to 14 percent. The beneficiaries of this gift giving are the auditor/controller, the treasurer, the clerk recorder, the district attorney and the sheriff, each of whose total compensation now exceeds $200,000 per year.

Only Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam voted against these pay increases, noting that given the county’s large unfunded pension liability and deteriorating roads and other infrastructure, the supervisors shouldn’t make Santa’s list of deserving boys and girls.

Of course, the taxpayers of Santa Barbara County play Santa — willingly or not. For elected officials to have the power to increase their own compensation is like plundering Santa’s sleigh rather than asking Santa for gifts. Santa just doesn’t get the opportunity to check who has been naughty and who has been nice. Any increases in the compensation of elected officials should be approved by voters.

This latest round of self-gifting by the supervisors will cost taxpayers an additional $1.6 million per year — year after year. How many county residents would prefer filling potholes than filling elected officials’ Christmas stockings?

The rationale the county gives for increasing compensation of its elected officials is that elected officials in other counties are being paid more. This is a familiar justification employed by governments at all levels. To escalate their own compensation, even beyond fiscal prudence, governments engage in a tacit game of pay escalation whereby one or more jurisdictions increase the pay of its officials above that of other jurisdictions. The other jurisdictions then justify increasing their pay levels to match or exceed those of the instigating jurisdictions, and away we go on the next round of government gluttony.

This rationale for increasing the pay of elected officials assumes that taxpayers are either stupid or not paying attention — assumptions that are sadly often valid. If Santa Barbara County’s elected officials are so poorly compensated, why do they keep running for re-election? Why is there never a shortage of qualified people interested in running for county offices, even at those paltry six-figure salaries?

And, it’s not as if elected officials can just quit their positions and take the same position in another jurisdiction that has higher pay. Elected officials are, after all, elected, not hired. Is anyone really concerned that if the supervisors aren’t paid more they will establish residence in Orange County and run for supervisor there? Is anyone afraid that without more pay there will be no qualified candidates who will run for office?

For that matter, regardless of pay levels, do we always get qualified candidates for public office? Think of Congress. Voters are likely to be better served by candidates whose primary motivation for seeking office is not how much they can enrich themselves with that office.

Why did the supervisors give the county’s other elected county officials pay increases? Was the sheriff threatening to quit if he didn’t get this latest increase? Did the supervisors fear that, at $189,000 per year and the chance to retire relatively young with nearly full pay and benefits for life, there would be insufficient interest in the position, or that qualified candidates would look elsewhere? Why was a $12,000 salary increase necessary?

This past year’s race for sheriff was hard fought between two qualified candidates who, given the intensity of their campaigns, really wanted to be elected. Apparently their enthusiasm for the office was not diminished by a salary of $189,000. So why did the supervisors find it necessary to raise that salary by nearly $12,000?

Elected officials move on. Some climb the political ladder to higher office; some retire, often with generous taxpayer-funded benefits. The repercussions of their fiscal irresponsibility and greed, however, endure past their tenures. Remember, taxpayers not only pay for the salaries of those government officials and employees reporting for work each day, but also for a growing number of retired officials and employees reporting to the golf course each day.

The generous retirement packages that elected officials have bestowed on themselves and on public employees are not being covered by investment income alone. The resulting shortfalls in funding are, by law, the responsibility of taxpayers. Santa Barbara County taxpayers are currently on the hook for an unfunded county pension liability of about $1 billion.

Jurisdictions in California and other states are staggering under the crushing burden of public employee compensation excesses — especially retirement benefits. Some have declared bankruptcy. Given these disturbing realities, how can the county supervisors increase their pay and that of other county officials?

Merry Christmas, taxpayers.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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