City Manager Debra Figone made the correct decision in turning down a raise. What was astounding was that it was ever offered in the first place. (Here’s the memo from the city manager.) Her current compensation is a whopping $227,975 a year. Just the offer of this raise is cause for voters to become irate. It reduces the credibility of public service and confirms taxpayers belief their money is being wasted.
Executive salaries are out of control. After years of cuts, public employee strife, no burglary unit, homicides increasing, unopened libraries, deferred maintenance of infrastructure and a false narrative that pensions caused the problem, giving the top executive extra compensation when money finally becomes available is mind-numbingly ignorant.
The City Council has a mind-set more applicable to Wall Street than public service.
Figone, to her credit, is obviously not tone deaf to public outrage. The council, on the other hand, seems hell-bent on alienating both the public and their line employees. City Hall morale has never been lower, distrust never higher and anger never more palpable.
The public doesn’t mind paying for real public services. Paying a city librarian $72,000 a year seems reasonable, given the cost of living in this area. But $250,000 for a city manager who has a staff of 13, with salaries ranging from $116,733 to $208,020.71, is excessive.
Moreover, the governor of California, who is responsible for administering the state of California with 38 million people and a $96 billion budget, is paid only $173,000. If the Governor can survive on that salary while administering the entire state, how can the salary of a local executive who administers a jurisdiction of one million people and a budget of $2.8 billion be justified?
San Jose is not the only public entity with an executive compensation problem. Nearly every government jurisdiction has bloated executive pay.
For years, governments of all sizes have often used the “competition” argument for hiring executives. It is a bogus argument that has allowed executive salaries to escalate with no reasonable return in value for the labor received by the taxpayer. Did anyone notice when the city manager last went on vacation? Did the city fall apart? Did the entire system break down? Of course not.
Yet, when you call a police officer or firefighter to your home, you notice if they don’t show. In fact, if they do not show up, the consequences can be catastrophic. So what job is more valuable to the taxpayers?
The answer is as uncomfortable as it is clear, but our collective bureaucratic mentality is to pay executives more because of their “supply and demand” argument.
Public service is an honor. There is a reward in serving the public that goes beyond money. Many executives note that they could make more in the private sector. There is an easy answer then: Go do it.
If your desire is to be highly compensated, become a Wall Street banker, an entrepreneur or some other highly compensated member of the private enterprise world. No public servant has ever chosen their career path based on money alone. If they did, it was a horrible choice. That said, those who serve the public should be compensated fairly. They should not be paupers.
As for Figone, she is far from a pauper. Regardless of how you feel about her performance, it is a strong person with values who turns down compensation that would benefit her personally. (There is, however, a disconnect on why the council turned down its own salary increase but insisted on Figone getting a raise.)
The real solution for all governments is to limit the salaries of city and county executive to no more than what the governor makes—he isn’t poor. That way we can spend more money on services that really matter, the taxpayers can be assured their money isn’t being wasted and the voters will be a little less irate at those they select to serve.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.