Should Council and Commission Members Have Some Modest Perks?

Posted by Jackson Baker on Wed, Jun 8, 2011 at 8:17 AM

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Among the more dismaying aspects of city and county budget deliberations in this austerity year has been the last-minute impulse on both the City Council and the Shelby County Commission to sacrifice such meager amenities as their own snack and travel funds.

We’re talking about modest $25,000-or-so annual outlays — chump change, equivalent to maybe a day’s worth of revenue lost from the sacrifice of sales tax revenue to one of those giant carpetbagging industries we entice away from some luckless locality elsewhere by throwing millions in public money at them and promising them, via the PILOT program (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes), that they won’t have to pay any taxes while they’re here.

Luckily, there was just enough self-regard left on both the Council and the Commission to defeat the mock-heroic hair-shirt proposals this year — by a single vote, in each case.

Consider the implications of sacrificing, say, the modest little sandwich-and-coke lunches provided for the County Commission on the every-other-Wednesday committee days, usually all-day affairs with minimal break time.

Having lunch together in the commission’s break room is one of the few occasions the members of that body have to remind themselves, away from the inevitable contention of the day’s disagreements, that they belong to a single unitary whole, Shelby County, and to rise above partisanship and other divisions.

For a brief moment before getting back to work, commissioners can discharge tension and animosity by discussing the day’s weather, the Weiner case, or whatever else floats t heir boat. Having been there once or twice, at the invitation of a member, I can attest to the fact that small talk is what they do at these little conclaves, not business.

Things might be otherwise if the members were forced to go out of the building and have their lunch — no doubt, in small partisan groups — in some private place away from public scrutiny, from whence, after this unnecessary extra hour or so, inconvenient to the public in attendance back at the county building, to return to the day’s agenda.

The same reasoning applies to the modest spreads provided for City Council members on similar occasions.

The Council did succeed Tuesday night in paring away a third of its travel budget — leaving in place all of $20,000 for the 13 members of that body to indulge in fact-finding expeditions elsewhere or travel to professional conferences or what-have-you. The average executive at one of our local PILOT-fed corporations might spend that much in two weeks’ worth of airport-hopping.

The point cannot be made often enough: Most members of both the Council and the Commission have already made substantial sacrifices in time, money, and energy just to be serving on those bodies. They should not feel compelled to make a show of denying themselves simple amenities, especially when these bare-bones amenities are of the sort that are routine in every other walk of life.

See also John Branston's "The Best and Worst of Budget Week."

Comments (12)

Showing 1-12 of 12

I've been known to skip a lunch break and eat at my desk, but for some reason my employer never buys me lunch when I do. Even when we have to go to these team building lunches, we have to buy our own catering. Bare-bones amenities are only routine in certain walks of life.

Of course, the amount of money is a pittance compared to the overall budget. But when money is tight, the first thing you do is cut out the pittances. I'm sure they can run the city just fine without fact-finding trips and professional conferences. It's only temporary after all. When the economy eventually turns around, Aruba will still be there.

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Posted by Jeff on 06/08/2011 at 1:08 PM

It all adds up - thousands here and thousands there. That money could be either saved or moved to a critically needed program or item. Elected officials need to set the tone and lead the way, eating on the taxpayer money sends the wrong message. The city employees pay for their own lunches and so do private sector employees. All of you all should have voted against the "free" food!

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Posted by Good Habits on 06/08/2011 at 1:25 PM

Jeff, Bet you'd eat at your desk and take lunchtime meetings MORE often if your employer provided a free sandwich and coke.

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Posted by MichaelC on 06/08/2011 at 1:36 PM

Michael - you can't buy me that cheaply.

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Posted by Jeff on 06/08/2011 at 1:59 PM

Even if relinquishing perks is a symbolic gesture, it's an important one. The City Council shouldn't ask city employees and taxpayers to bear the burden of curing a budget deficit if they're not willing to participate in shouldering that burden themselves. Is the concept of "shared sacrifice" still viable or is it just an exercise in lip service? Are council members better than city employees and taxpayers?

The fact that small talk is what's on the agenda at these taxpayer-subsidized luncheons is all the more reason to expect council members to pay for them themselves. Council members are paid $30,000 a year, and taxing as their duties may be, it is still a part-time job that enables them to run businesses and have full-time jobs, along with the income those afford them.

I'm sorry but, particularly in these times, they can afford to pay for their own lunches, even if, but especially because, it may be only a token gesture.

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Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 06/08/2011 at 2:01 PM

FWIW, whenever I've attended company meetings at lunchtime or whenever, or served on charitable boards, it's usually been customary to at a minimum provide some inexpensive refreshments. Does that mean my employer pays for my daily lunches? No, but personally I don't think it's unreasonable to provide a Coke or bottled water and a sandwich if someone has to work through dinnertime.

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Posted by Packrat on 06/08/2011 at 2:31 PM

We are talking peanuts here. $25,000 a year compared to the $11-16 million shortfall? Come on. Quit wasting time even voting on this stuff and work out some big money issues.

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Posted by downtowner on 06/08/2011 at 3:16 PM

This is an opinion piece, not reporting.

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Posted by Wintermute on 06/08/2011 at 3:27 PM

Bingo! Thanks, Mute. I'd heard there were opinion pieces on this site before. Now your discovery has cinched it. Wow!

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Posted by Jackson Baker on 06/08/2011 at 3:41 PM

I guess the first clue was the title. Its being in the form of a question was a giveaway, huh?

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Posted by Jackson Baker on 06/08/2011 at 3:42 PM

Chris, the PILOTs are negotiated. They came in all different shapes and sizes, and timetables for expiration may differ, but they all involve a waiver of some or all of the expected property tax liability for extended periods of time -- extended enough that significant amounts of potential revenue get written off.

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Posted by Jackson Baker on 06/08/2011 at 10:19 PM

How much does a coke and a sandwich cost? Is this $20,000, or so, just for these snacks. If so, that is the equivalent, almost, of some low-paid city worker with a family. Why do the people at the bottom have to keep giving up what little they have?

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Posted by mightyisis on 06/09/2011 at 3:55 PM
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