Today, as readers plow into reporter Pete Milliken’s Mahoning County pay raises story on Page A1, it will become a typical day for us with that story.
Typical in that on any good newspaper day, half of the readers will like what we do, and the other half will have concerns. Some will be irate.
You will see the feelings expressed across various Facebook pages the next couple of days, too. So that will be today — an average day.
Pete’s story is not average. It took a lot of work to tell you a story that no one else will tell you.
You won’t find it in any other media. It is not on any personal Facebook page.
And it is not on the county’s website, which is standard for most tax-funded agencies.
“Maybe it’s not news” is a fair point.
But from our view, it’s news when there is a vote for the county to continue taking $15 million of our money. It’s even more important when they pitch a new sales tax because they claim to need $8 million more of our dollars.
That’s where Pete’s story originates. I remember watching Commissioner Anthony Traficanti when the new tax was announced — throwing his hands in the air and shaking his head saying, “We are just out of money; we can’t afford anything without a new tax.”
That’s an invite to look at the money, and to look even closer at the money that’s often buried in paper shuffles and rubber stamps. Salaries and benefits top that list.
Pete’s work is a mammoth effort (with great help from editors Ernie Brown, Robert McFerren and Mark Sweetwood.)
It’s a long read. Its length is, in part, to be fair.
There are many things to explain in county spending that we do not like.
But there are plenty of things to like. We wanted space for that, too.
I like that many pay adjustments did not exceed 3 percent.
I like that there were promotions to fill retirements, and those new folks were slotted at pay rates less than the outgoing person.
These are fairly common practices in the private sector.
Various government labor groups will attach themselves to private-sector habits when it suits. But they run from such practices at other times.
But there were many things not to like:
1) Throughout county operations, raises were extended to people who took on more job tasks as other positions were eliminated.
That was the reason for raises.
In private businesses, that’s an opportunity for savings.
More tasks is not a promotion.
Often in such a move, it’s the customer who loses out with slower or less service. That certainly happened with the county in departments such as recycling.
In that department, they acknowledge they are giving citizens fewer services in the downsizing. But that process of downsizing was viewed as reason to give the staff more money.
And there are no claims they are working longer weeks — just shuffling more tasks into the same workweek.
I think more appropriate would have been to bonus the person in the first year or two of the transition to reward the commitment. Some taxpayers frown at bonuses in government work. I do not, and this is such a case.
2) “Bringing the pay up to comparative levels around the region” is used frequently.
That’s a horrible “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset that has never passed the private-sector smell test.
What can we afford? That’s what we pay.
Look closely at what the Veterans Service Commission did with our taxes.
In a series of raises and job shufflings the past 15 months, the pay for its top job grew from $65,000 to $80,000. And pay for a mid-level job grew from $46,000 to $70,000.
This was approved by a board whose five members also got $1,000 raises.
All of it was under the fear of “what other counties are paying.”
3) The top-waged folks in the county did not forgo wage hikes even while they asked for more money from taxpayers.
Mental-health board director Ron Marian has fared well in the past four years of county belt-tightening, growing from $118,000 in pay in 2009 to $138,000 in 2013. He’s retiring this month, announcing that back in December. That same month, his pay grew to $142,000.
Carol Rimedio-Righetti took a 10-percent cut for two years (thank you for that, Carol) but went back to full wages in 2013. She offered that if the county needed it, she would continue the cut. I think she was part of the vote for the new sales-tax request.
Pete Milliken’s work took some time to do, and it’s work I’d like to do with more agencies. I’d also like to celebrate wise decisions, such as the pact signed this week by Poland teachers or the sacrifices from the county deputies. But the buried details and the spin make it exhaustive and unsexy.
But valuable when done.
The county asked for an additional $7.5 million of our money this year. Then they rescinded the request fearing they would lose the renewal.
It was a good decision as these incidents chip away at the confidence that we can really believe an official when he says “we need the money.”
And that is why, when they ask to make a tax levy permanent, we should measure:
Do we want it permanent? Or do we want them coming before taxpayers every five years justifying decisions like above?
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.