To the Editor:
Have you ever decided your own salary for the coming year? If so, did you opt to use another person’s money to give yourself a nearly 30-percent raise? Unlikely. Many of us would consider that unethical and shocking.
The Otsego County Board of Representatives recently did just that, including their own generous raise in a half-million-dollar management salary reset. Some downplay the financial impact, but the county board raise alone will cost taxpayers about $84,000 per two-year term.
Some representatives expressed reservations but, in the end, it was nearly unanimous. The salary package originated in the Administration Committee where the legislator raises were initially included with those of the department heads. After lengthy discussion, we decoupled them, creating two separate resolutions. The department head raises were voted out of committee unanimously, but the county board raises were approved along party lines, with Republicans voting for their own raises and Democrats dissenting.
For unknown reasons, these were repackaged into one resolution for the county board meeting where I moved to amend the resolution to remove the raises for representatives and the chair. While my motion was seconded for discussion, no one joined me in voting to remove or reject the legislator raises.
The timing is especially concerning. Instead of approving a raise for an incoming class of new representatives, we are mid-term and approving raises for ourselves. It’s also done at a time when the IGA committee is looking at new county management plans, which may reduce the role of county representatives.
Finally, economic storm clouds may be gathering. The county is disproportionately reliant on bed and sales taxes, which track volatile consumer spending. It appears the stock market is set for its worst year since 2008 and economists predict a recession within two years. These raises are essentially locked into future budgets. When the economy falters, the board will need to raise taxes or cut services.
During the holiday season when we should consider less fortunate neighbors, there is a distinct “Let them eat cake” vibe coming from the county board. Another representative claimed that because the raise was already included in the budget, no further debate was necessary. This belies the fact that items may be budgeted and then not spent, returning monies to the fund balance or transferring to any number of other line items.
How politicians choose to spend your money reflects values decisions. Every dollar a legislator spends on him or herself is a dollar that won’t fill the pothole outside your house, or enhance school security, or support the animal shelter, or fight the opiate crisis, or encourage economic development, or just provide tax relief. The salaries are just the tip of the iceberg attached to absurd and often hidden perks.
County representatives are part-time and short-term elected officials but are entitled to health insurance benefits for themselves and family, even into retirement. My understanding is a politician can win election three times and then be voted out of office after six years of service and suddenly be considered “retired,” with all the benefits that go along with that. The representatives recently made a show of doubling the amount they contribute to their own health insurance. This means taxpayers are now responsible for 90 percent of the cost as opposed to the former 95 percent. Our full-time rank and file union employees pay significantly more for insurance and had to fight for 2 percent salary raises.
County officials should not follow the lead of politicians in Washington and Albany, who have lost the trust of the people. At the local level, we need citizen legislators who bring diverse perspectives, work together for a few years, then pass the baton to the next civic-minded person.
During my time with the County I have pledged not to accept any of the health insurance, retirement benefits, or travel reimbursement, as I believe these are incompatible with part-time public service.
Until these benefits are reformed, a representative may accept them and each of us makes our own decision on what’s right for us.
If we believe the benefits are ethical, transparency should not be a problem. It is my hope that county representatives will reflect over the holiday about who we are elected to serve and that we will return in January with the spirit of real reform.
Town of Oneonta