Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Foreskin Affair, Part Two

Ten reasons why the Shelby County Commission should rescind its pending pay cuts….

Posted By on Thu, Sep 10, 2009 at 3:13 PM

On Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission, meeting in committee, turned back an effort by Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter to rescind the salary reductions for the offices of mayor and sheriff which the commission talked itself into voting for at its full public meeting of Monday, September 1.

And the commission, with only Sidney Chism dissenting, voted to sustain a pay-cut package for itself whereby commissioners’ compensation is to be reduced by $1500 from the current level of $30,000 annually.

In an editorial which appeared after last week’s euphorically intense commission meeting, the Flyer commended the body for its bold action in initiating a joint city/county consolidation commission but suggested that its actions in imposing pay cuts on itself and others were more impulsive than considered and that a measure of “bathos and embarrassment” might be the residuum of that action.

The term was objected to by at least one commission member, who may indeed have spoken for others. We meant only to be helpful, and, in that same spirit, here are ten reasons why the pay cut action was a bad idea to begin with and should be ditched, or at least modified, before passage on third reading Monday.

1. It is one thing to turn one’s own cheek in masochistic self-denial; is quite another to forcibly turn someone else’s — in this case, the members of the Memphis city council, whose pay levels are linked by charter to those of the commission.

During Wednesday’s committee session, Commissioner Mike Ritz passed along a comment he’d gotten from city councilman Bill Boyd, like Ritz a Republican and a conservative. “Thanks a lot” was the comment, and, as faithfully inflected by Ritz, it sounded more sardonic than not.

Beyond the matter of financial disservice, the commission’s action arguably trespassed on protocol by pre-empting a co-equal public body’s own prerogatives.

2. The Shelby County sheriff has been unnecessarily humiliated. There was considerable testimony during last year’s commission debates on charter amendments and this year’s consideration of the county budget to the effect that the salary of Sheriff Mark Luttrell was at the low limit as compared to peer salaries statewide — ranking, in fact, at the level for sheriffs in small or rural counties where law enforcement is a far less consuming enterprise.

Ultimately, in the transition from constitutional status to a position spelled out in the newly amended charter (the change, effective a year from now, was approved by referendum but precipitated by a judicial ruling), the sheriff’s salary was pegged arbitrarily to a level from 80 percent to 95 percent of the county mayor’s. That stipulation in effect gave a free hand to the commission, which chose, however, to dock Luttrell (or his successor) by the same percentage as it cut the mayor — from the sheriff’s current pay level of roughly $118,000 to $115,000.

Much ado has been made by proponents of the pay cuts about their “symbolic” value. The symbolism here seems to be that of a slap in the face of Shelby County’s chief law-enforcement officer.

3. The Shelby County mayor’s office has been rendered further insignificant. It is axiomatic that the powers of the county chief executive are minimal — especially as compared to those of Memphis’ “strong” mayor. Indeed, that is one of the crosses currently being borne by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, a candidate for city mayor who is vulnerable to potentially unfair charges from his opponents that he has been a “do-nothing” executive.

The pending cut in mayoral compensation — from $150,000 to $145,000 — is a further step in the erosion of the office’s prestige, and, as indicated above, part of the trigger mechanism for lowering the sheriff’s level of compensation.

4. Public service itself is further devalued by the pay cuts. The government-bashing which became fashionable some two decades ago — even in government circles themselves — has by now approached the level of the toxic. Again, perhaps the best example is the fact that, during this past year’s budget deliberations, Sheriff Mark Luttrell had to struggle to patch together a minimally acceptable level of funding — this in a time of public alarms over a perceived increase in violent crime.

Equally starved, arguably, are such vital components of the public sector as the Health Department and the schools. To be sure, proponents of the pay cuts note that they do not apply to county employees. But the minimizing of expectations in one part of the public sector — the county’s elected officials — has inevitably a bleed-over effect elsewhere.

One commissioner who voted for the pay cuts reports privately that “everywhere I go,” he is being congratulated for putting the financial squeeze on himself and his colleagues. No surprise there. Anybody who takes in the radio talk shows is aware of the lynch mob sentiment toward public officials that exists — and is continually and artificially being whetted up — and not just among outright yahoos. Under such circumstances, the pay cuts amount to a plea of “guilty as charged.”

Ironically, two commissioners who voted on Wednesday to cut their own pay — Henri Brooks and Steve Mulroy — both argued eloquently in a separate discussion that a full-commission with full-time pay would attract more “qualified, energetic individuals” (Brooks), who would be “better at oversight” (Mulroy). At present, they argued, the part-time, ill-compensated commission is subject to potential domination by “a rich persons’ club” (Brooks) and “the landed gentry” (Mulroy).

5. Deflation of wages is hand-in-glove with cycles of economic depression. Though it is something of an historical truism, it is apparently a lost insight among today’s lay thinkers (and even many economists) that deflation of wages and prices is not only a consequence of hard times but a perpetuator of them.

Indeed, as the Great Depression began to deepen in the winter of 1932-33, that was one of the few matters that outgoing president Herbert Hoover and incoming president Franklin D. Roosevelt could agree on. Though their strategies for ending the Depression differed enormously, both men considered it necessary to increase, not decrease levels of compensation — in the public sector as elsewhere. (President Obama's "stimulus" strategy is an echo of that understanding.)

The issue is, of course, more symbolic than otherwise, but the symbolism of the pay cuts is one of the most bragged-upon aspects of them by those who voted for them and who are apparently confusing the pay levels of ordinary grunts with the excess profits and dividends of the financial market.

6. The original justification for the pay cuts — relating them to a call for certain Cost-of-Living (COLA) equities in county government — was sundered from them and remains sundered.

The pay cuts themselves are all that’s left over from the original motion by Commissioner Matt Kuhn to insure that, if Cost-of-Living increases were included in county employees’ compensation, they would be included in commissioner’s compensation as well. And, of course, vice versa.

This proposal seems to have been regarded by conservatives on the commission as a Trojan Horse measure to boost commissioners’ pay at some future date (horrors!) and was challenged on that basis. “We called their bluff,” as Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter would say, and the hair-shirted acceptance of a pay cut ensued — more by way of refuting a self-serving “evil” motive than, as would be claimed, to express “leadership” and a salutary “symbolism.”

7. The issue of the pay cuts exacerbates a developing tendency of the commission to divide along partisan and ideological lines.

Though this part of the current analysis requires a subjective judgment, it is apparent that recent votes and debates have deepened a rough fault line which finds Democrats and social activists on one side and Republicans and budget-cutters on the other. Increasingly, ideological axes have been ground, and, though Democrat Sidney Chism is wont to accuse the Republicans of “lock-step” voting, recent actions of Democrats in breaking long-standing “gentlemen’s agreement” traditions regarding recognized partisan spheres of interest are a major part of the problem.

8. The actual financial impact of the pay cuts is negligible to non-existent. Though Commissioner Joe Ford in particular made an effort last week to calculate economic gains for cutting the pay of commissioners, mayor, and sheriff — quantifying them at $200,000 over a period of several years — it has since been acknowledged by all persons and parties that the financial impact of the cuts would be nil or next to it. This became a matter of mutual stipulation during Wednesday’s discussion.

9. The potentially positive after-effects of the pay cuts were vastly over-hyped. A major part if the ballyhoo that developed when the commission first voted for the pay cuts last week was the expectation expressed by several members — statements by Ford, Mulroy, and Kuhn come to mind — that mankind as a whole would sit up, take notice, and be inspired by the commission’s action, and that governmental units elsewhere would look upon the commission’s actions as a noble example to be emulated.

This would seem to have been so much self-deception, in that mankind has pretty much gone about its business without even noticing what the commission did, much less emulating it. The anticipated national hosannas were not forthcoming. To put it bluntly: Mankind yawned.

10. “Bathos and embarrassment”: The most commonly accepted definition for the term “bathos” (a.k.a, “the art of sinking,” when applied to literature) is “an abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace….” Clearly, this definition applies to an action which turned out fairly quickly (and all too predictably) to have lacked both practical impact and seismic bounce.

As for “embarrassment,” surely no definition is required — given the gaps, documented above, between expectation and fulfillment and between reality and self-hypnosis. All, however, can still end well if the commission comes to its senses between now and Monday, when a third — and final — reading of the pay-cut provisions is scheduled to be acted upon at the commission’s next regular meeting.

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