This "Ramblings" was inspired by a question a constituent asked me back in late October while I and my work crew for the day were eating lunch at the Cozy Cafe. We were clearing the yard, though not all the leaves had fallen; as I look out the window today (I wrote this on Feb. 5–I try to keep ahead in my older age, and I'd like at least one column to be published posthumously, though I don't want it to be this one), dried up leaves still cling to the white oak tree I bought as a sapling from Ken Schaal's fundraiser for the nature trail rehab. That's an old tree. I like it, and to copy its leaves, I hope to hang on for a long time.
The question, from a man I've known and respected for longer than the I've had that tree in my side yard, dealt with the November elections. He asked, "How much do county jobs pay these days?" Then came the reason for the question: "I see yard signs all over town, and I suspect they aren't cheap."
I didn't give him a direct answer then, not because he doesn't have the right to know–as a taxpayer, he does–but because that's a sore point for me. I wanted time to consider the response, and to do research that's proved enlightening.
I've decided to answer through this column using my personal records and motives; other elected officials can respond if they wish as they wish. I can only speak in truth about myself. Although it's a matter of public record, what others make (and why they run) would be conjecture on my part. I know about the county board, though, because I've enjoyed 19 consecutive years on that body. When Mike Plunkett chose not to run last year (he is sorely missed) and I won re-election, I became the current longest-serving board member. If it were a union job, I'd have bidding rights based on that seniority. I don't mean that as a boast.
When Gene Fox (a friend, United Mine Workers Union man who had interesting tales to tell about picket lines and spud guns, and a fellow member of the HUMC) approached me to see if I would run in 2000, I was rather uninformed. I didn't know how much board members were paid ($60 per diem), but I did know my teaching/coaching career wouldn't last forever. I was into my 32nd year, and I still had the energy and know-how to teach well; however, friends were retiring, our culture was changing, and not everyone in administration nor on the school board thought my experience was helpful to the system. I feared becoming irrelevant to the community in which I live; I still have that fear.
Besides, I, like many others, was miffed about our new jail and courthouse. From the outside I didn't understand the mechanism of the Public Building Commission, so I was worried about an ever increasing tax burden. Too, the decision to fight the ACLU about the "The World Needs God" sign in court was a costly one. That group never loses, and the loser always pays the legal costs for both sides. I thought perhaps I could stop that "take-'em-to court" attitude if it came about again.
My education came after I was elected. Gene told me he thought I'd win because I'd taught almost every kid in the district and generally was well-liked by parents. I didn't have the partisan political slant that Gene had. I shied away from partisanship, in fact, voting always for the person and not the party. My parents had been Republicans, but I thought votes should be based on merit, not on group psychology. I still feel that way.
Gene said I was one of a group of candidates carefully selected by the county's Democratic Central Committee to defeat enough Republicans to gain control of the board. To that I was an unwitting accomplice. The incumbent I defeated has since became a good friend; he's a better man than I in those circumstances.
I learned about pay structure quickly when at the January meeting I turned in my first pay voucher. Because I was assigned to two committees, each convening once a month, and attended the full board meeting, I received $180 before deductions. Later, after I was assigned as a liaison to the U of I Extension committee, the monthly take rose to $240, which was money I didn't have before, and I liked that. The next year I was named the Economic Development Committee chair; all chairs of the seven standing committees receive a $600 check (the formula is per diem times ten) at the reorganization meeting in December for the time that chairmanship duties entail. At the time the board chair received $6,000 extra for the year; now it's $7,500.
In a way it's a faulty system because once the board chair is elected by the board members, he assigns the committee chairs. Invariably the chairs are of the same political party as the chairperson. If the chairperson doesn't like a board member, he may be assigned to only one committee rather than two or three. Although I personally have had only one board chairman not like me (for political reasons), I still feel that's more financial control than most humans can handle well.
For those amounts of money, no one can afford to depend on a board member's salary for his or her sole income. Now that I'm retired with a pension and a part-time job with The Journal-News (I'm thankful for both), I and others like me can be board members. To be honest, I would not do it for no pay though I am a community-service type person.
While I was teaching, I needed the board income to make ends meet. One board member said rather scornfully during a meeting, "Why, he needs this income; no one who needs it should be on the board." The gentleman lost the next election, and I smiled.
I disagree with his philosophy. If money isn't one of the motivations for becoming a board member, then I can guess at a few others that are less honorable. One is to keep taxes as low as possible. On the surface, that's understandable. I don't want to see tax money wasted either, neither mine nor my neighbors', but a want from an office in this county is usually a need. All needs aren't met, but determining if a new car for the sheriff is more essential than a new truck for the highway department is a tough call. Little waste exists.
Technology is effective, but consumable. When the decision was made to move into the new age with a GIS system, we were obligated to maintain it. The necessary fly-overs are not cheap. When 911 needs updated equipment, we're obligated to provide it. When the state sets the salary for a court officer, we must meet that requirement; admittedly, a part of the salary is subsidized by the state–usually.
Expenses are a moving target, and the target always moves upward. Revenues, sadly, tend to decrease over time, so the local tax burden moves upward. I have the utmost respect for most current board members, and I attest we do our best to keep revenues and expenses as balanced as possible, but when the computer system is hacked, as it was and most likely will be again, the financial balance goes haywire. Still, in our culture, a government of a county can't function without computers. Balancing revenue and expenses is more difficult each year, as its for most of us in our personal lives.
Another motive for some to run is a quest for sheer power, but even the chairperson has little of that. Recognition? Often the public is unhappy with board decisions (we desperately needed the income the coal mine royalty provided, but there are people still upset with the board for selling the coal rights), so recognition is not always a good thing. If anyone runs because they like to attend meetings, then I don't understand that motivation at all. I'm certainly not among that caucus.
To answer Jim's question, as a board member in 2018, I had take-home pay of $2,480.09; it may be $720 less this year, but that's perhaps material for another column. For the 2018 election, in which I won a four-year term, I spent $510 for 14 rolls of 30 cent stamps for postcards; $115 for the postcards to be printed; $21.10 for a rubber stamp for return addresses for the postcards; $45 (six of us shared the total cost) for a meet-and-greet; $48 for door hangers; $229 for yard signs (only 15); and $216 for newspaper ads. A radio spot, shared by four others, was paid for by Blue Wave, as were other shared newspaper ads. My total cost, then, was $1,144.60; the central committee reimbursed me $500 (that seldom happens).
To be fair, I won't have to spend money on a campaign again until 2022; I doubt I'll run again, since I'll be 79 by then. No matter, the expense (I prefer to call it an investment in myself) could be divided by four. Still, a poor man can't afford to run for any county political office because if he loses, he has a negative return. I'm sure expenses are much higher for county-wide offices.
Way back in 2000, when I received my first check, I hoped to earn enough to pay my real-estate tax bill. Since then, perhaps by folly, I bought the house next door to me and the lot next to it, so my tax bill in 2018 was $4,156.42. The hole deepens each year. To me that's important because I see the board salary as barter–my time for taxes paid; I think before road care became so specialized, farmers would work on the roads in lieu of taxes.
I once met with the county water company as a liaison to the county board. One of their members wasn't happy that I was paid for each meeting I attended while the regular members did the work as a public service. Had I been John, I'd have been upset too, but I feel good people won't be board members without compensation for their time. What's the interruption of a day or evening worth if one isn't directly involved with a personal interest in the proceedings? Currently the water company has no liaison, but it isn't because I couldn't take the heat. I did learn much about water systems by attending those meetings.
I know school board members aren't compensated, but I fear many of them are motivated by the desire to hold taxes down or on the misbelief (I hope) that their presence on the board will help a child's chance to be a starter on an athletic team. When I coached, I thought that was a myth; I learned differently personally. One board member for whom I voted because he was a professional who was interested in the curriculum told me he didn't seek a second term because it was so political.
Others run because they have an ax they would like to use on a teacher or administrator. I know that because my wife Judy ran for the school board once because as HUEA president and spokesman, I was very angry with the superintendant, primarily because he was wealthy and couldn't understand why teachers wanted a higher salary. He once said that I should drive a better car because that would inspire more students to become teachers, and expressed shock when I responded with anger.
Had she won the election, and she made it close, she hoped to convince the rest of the board to ask the man to leave. Whitey Patton was elected instead, and he was a good member because he had the background to understand budgets.
It was good that he won because I realize now that Judy's (and my) motivation was wrong when she ran. Once the superintendant left town to become another district's problem, I became friends with a few of the board members with whom the association battled tooth and nail during negotiations.
I did learn, though, to examine a person's motive for running in any election. Wanting to fire a coach is not a motive I feel acceptable in any school board member; pursuits of academic excellence should be much more important than pursuit of athletic excellence.
On the other hand, I respect anyone who runs for public office because it opens one to close scrutiny. That scrutiny is essential, though it encourages self-promotion.
Sometimes, on the national and state-wide levels, that self-promotion is too genuine but also hard to recognize. It's harder to hide one's true motives in a smaller community.
That's one of the joys of small-town life.