Government salaries getting some attention

Posted 1/25/11

In government, as in life, you get what you pay for. That’s why all the attention being paid to Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s plan …

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Government salaries getting some attention


In government, as in life, you get what you pay for.

That’s why all the attention being paid to Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s plan to supplement his $68,500 government salary is a welcome discussion.

Setting aside what seems to be the core issue in this specific instance, which is the nature of Gessler’s moonlighting gig and how it poses conflicts with the position he was elected to do, it highlights a broader issue that has bugged me for some time: the hypocritical way many people see compensation for people in the public sector versus the private sector.

For me, the hypocrisy shows up in the general tone of reader comments I perused at the end of a Denver Post article about Gessler. The gist of the discussion was that Gessler knew what the salary was and if he couldn’t afford it, he shouldn’t have run.

That’s a tough compromise. Do we want the best people working for us in government or do we want the best people who can afford to do that work? The latter is a big limitation.

I wonder how many people who criticize Gessler or complain about a lack of talent in government bother to look further upstream of the problem and ask themselves why weren’t there better choices?

If they did, they’d probably settle on the money issue.

Government work has never been (nor should it be) a place to get rich, but it doesn’t have to be a place where the financial sacrifice is so great that it’s a deterrent for people who could bring the best thinking and dedication to the job.

On the local level, there are a lot of expectations tied to a seat on city council or on a school board. But often, these people are paid only a token amount if at all. We want great solutions to tough, time-consuming problems yet we’re only appealing to people’s sense of civic responsibility to come up with those solutions.

Government employees sometimes find themselves at the other end of the spectrum — having some of the same great expectations placed upon them while also being criticized for making too much money.

Annually, the City of Littleton publishes the salaries for all of its employees. Every so often we get calls from people looking for a copy of this list, usually to look at it with an eye toward the wasteful spending of government. They quickly find the big numbers and say something along the lines of, “See. Look how much So-And-So is making. I told you this city spends too much.”

Douglas County Schools recently hired a new superintendent and at the time, there was a great deal of criticism about the $280,000-plus salary paid to Dr. Elizabeth Fagen.

I think a fair amount of this criticism comes from people who also think government should run more like a private business, which is ironic because a cornerstone of private business is that high wages will bring in the best talent. Think of a private organization the size of Douglas County Schools and ask yourself whether that kind of salary seems out of line for its CEO.

I think that’s what we should be doing with government: Paying for the best talent whether it is an elected official or a top-performer on staff. We can have efficient government if we attract the best people to figure out how to make it efficient.

Jeremy Bangs is the managing editor of Colorado Community Newspapers.


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