You Get What You Pay For

January 06, 1995

You're a successful administrator, second in command of a $1 billion firm. You were offered a quarter-million dollars a year by another company. Instead, you take a job that may pay $100,000 -- 40 percent of what you could be earning elsewhere. To compound the insult, you'll be making $27,000 less than in your old job.

That's the story of Major F. Riddick, the Prince George's County administrative officer picked by Gov.-elect Parris Glendening as chief of staff. It's a sacrifice to remain in public service.

Luring top-notch managers into government isn't easy. Public disdain for "the bureaucracy" makes the job unappealing. Why take all that abuse and a huge cut in earnings? Why put your family in a financial bind?

Not even affluent Montgomery County can draw the best talent. Said new County Executive Douglas M. Duncan: "You're asking someone making $150,000 to $200,000 a year, in their 40s or 50s, their peak earning years as a lawyer, to come here for half pay. That's not very attractive."

Of course, there is honor in public service. It is a rare opportunity to make a difference. You can't put a monetary value on such service.

Still, public servants are paid with taxpayer dollars. So frugality in wages comes with the job.

Voter anger has forced officials to change their ways. Baltimore County's new executive, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, canceled plans to trade in the county's four-year old Ford for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rejected a commission's recommendation to set his pay at $100,000; the mayor felt voters would tolerate only $80,000. (His current pay: $60,000.)

Yet it's not the top elected jobs causing the big problems. It's the cabinet-level and staff posts. State and county salaries cannot compete with private-sector compensation. And yet, taxpayers deserve the best administrators for their government. A middle ground must be found.

In Mr. Glendening's case, he's proposing a sensible compromise: Raise the pay scales for his top aides substantially but cut the size of the governor's staff. One move should offset the other.

Mr. Ruppersberger, too, should recognize the limits of symbolic cost-cutting. Pretty soon, his Ford will have 200,000 miles on it. Time to trade it in -- on a four-wheel-drive so he can get to work in bad weather. Even if it costs taxpayers money.

Citizens have to be realistic. Cars wear out and have to be replaced. The county needs a leader who can navigate through sleet and snow to keep the government operating. Similarly, public administrators should be paid salaries that draw top-quality applicants. You can take penny-pinching only so far before the quality of our government services suffers.

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