Dear County Commissioners:
I need some help. I'm one of the few who defend local government against a variety of slams. When people scream about Big Government I remind them that some government isn't all that big, that local spending is too transparent to allow the staggering waste that's larded into federal budgets. When they say you're completely out of touch with what life's like for ordinary people, I can point to countless hours you spend in community meetings, school functions and rural coffee shops with no purpose other than staying in touch.
But once in a while you do something that blows my case to smithereens, and along with it months of your own hard work building credibility with a cynical public. Like raising your Administrator's annual compensation package from $155,000 to $170,000.
Because I've been in the position of paying valuable public employees more than some taxpayers want them paid, I knew your general thinking before I read the article. You wanted to add substance to the "almost-perfect performance review" you were giving Danny Jordan. From what I hear, he does lots of things very well. His masterpiece is an amazingly large reserve fund that will get Jackson County through the coming storm with much less pain than our neighbors, making your jobs easier and services more secure than anyone expected (some of the cutbacks that made that possible have a darker side, but we'll leave that for another day). Very impressive. You don't want to lose a talented guy like that to someone with a bigger checkbook, you want to acknowledge the fatter package he'd get leading a for-profit organization of similar size, and you want to make sure that he's getting a fair shake relative to his counterparts in other Oregon counties. Is that about right?
I imagine that in a bygone era — a year ago, say — this decision would have raised a lot of eyebrows, some on the foreheads of reasonable, well-informed people who don't hate government at all. Today you're making jaws drop. One fact of life today is that there are no executive recruiters, or precious few, dangling fat offers in front of talented managers anymore. In this economy and in this Valley, there are men and women who could hold their own with Danny who would leap tall buildings for a secure job that pays $155,000, or $125,000 or even $100,000. And if you read the front-page article about this raise, and you did, you'll see that Danny's salary ranked high among comparable positions around the state before the raise.
But forget those figures. Consider these: Jackson County's official unemployment last month nearly reached 15 percent, and I heard one of you say last week that the real-life number's probably 25 percent or 30 percent. State economists tell us that average income per full-time job in the county hovers around $30,000. This average takes in people with all kinds and levels of skill.
And they're important people. These are the people whose trust (or at least benefit of the doubt) you need to carry out tough measures that lie ahead. And it's delusional to think they'll understand or respect what you've done here.
Danny Jordan found a way to douse the fire for now. Some combination of a good heart and good political radar led him to donate this year's $15,000 increment to charity. Fine. But that doesn't take care of next year. Only you can do that.
So give us all a break. Help yourself by conserving the political capital you need for the work ahead, and help those of us out here trying to whittle away at public cynicism. Announce at next Wednesday's meeting that you made a mistake, that in your enthusiasm for Danny's work and the fiscal cushion he developed, you momentarily lost sight of what thousands of taxpayers are going through, and the level of services they're likely to need before long. You're dropping Danny back to $155,000 and freezing all management official salaries for two years to see how far things slide; the customary cost-of-living increases will instead go to vital programs that were whacked in order to build that big cushion. And you're grateful to have managers who understand how these times call on us all to give.
With that you'll give me something to say to the next guy who bellyaches that county leaders are off in a bizarre world of their own. Without it I'll stammer. In this economy, in life as we're living it today, I don't think "But Danny's doing his job really well" is going to cut it.
Jeff Golden, the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com), was a Jackson County Commissioner from 1987-1991.
A letter to the commissioners
Dear County Commissioners: