Over the weekend, the American economy fell deeper and deeper into what many were calling its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Another major Wall Street investment bank failed; yet another was rescued at cents on the dollar. Everyone turned to look at the insurance sector, watching for the next big collapses there. Venerable economists were interviewed by the major news outlets; they forecast that we had not yet reached bottom. Troubling, troubling times.
In Sacramento on Tuesday, the state failed yet again to pass a budget, with the legislature's latest attempt falling to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto. The state has been without a budget for two and a half months. The legislature believes it has the votes to override the Schwarzenegger veto, according to the Sacramento Bee; however, Schwarzenegger threatens to veto every other bill on his desk if they try it.
The national unemployment rate hit a five-year high in August (6.1 percent). Despite a dip over the last couple of weeks, gasoline prices remain astronomical. There is a global food crisis -- prices of staples like bread and milk and rice are through the roof. It appears that the United States is heading toward the highest annual rate of inflation since the 1970s.
And so, on Tuesday, the members of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors awarded themselves salary increases that will take them, in two years time, up to $89,000 annually -- just about exactly three times the local median wage. That $89,000 doesn't take into account the various perks and benefits that accrue to the members of the board (and to top county brass). Nor does it take into account the "longevity bonuses" of five or 10 percent for which supervisors will now be eligible.
Two of the five supervisors -- Johanna Rodoni and Jimmy Smith -- voted against the pay increase, which will go back to the board for a final vote on Oct. 21. The other three -- Jill Geist, lame duck John Woolley and Bonnie Neely, the only current supervisor eligible for a longevity bonus -- voted in favor. (The other two current candidates for supervisor --Clif Clendenen and Estelle Fennell, both of whom will be challenging a Rodoni write-in campaign on the November ballot -- were present, and both expressed opposition to the pay raise. Supervisor-elect Mark Lovelace, who will take Woolley's place on the board next year, stated that he "had not requested [the raise] for myself" -- a strange sort of locution that left one wondering whether he opposed or supported it, or whether he'd take it or not.)
Ninety thousand dollars. The figure is not only completely out of scale with the working people of Humboldt County; it is completely out of scale with the salaries of their counterparts in other rural counties around the state. Shasta County, with a population half again as large as ours, pays its supervisors around $55,000. Imperial County pays its people even less. The raise will take our supervisors just about up to par with Marin County, one of the richest metropolitan areas in the United States of America. Their junior member, Supervisor Susan Adams, currently makes $95,000 a year, according to the records kept by the Marin Independent-Journal. When Humboldt County's special and somewhat obscure "benefit assessment" packages are taken into account, even our newest and freshest supervisors will easily exceed this figure.
No member of the public who spoke to the matter at Tuesday's board meeting -- and there were representatives of the political left, the political right, the center, the libertarians, the lunatic fringe -- was in favor. No one even had much of anything conciliatory to say. They condemned it one and all as bad policy, undertaken at the worst possible time. But notwithstanding the honorable and principled dissent from Supervisors Smith and Rodoni, the board went ahead.
The county currently employs many workers who are paid minimum wage, and who receive few to no benefits at all. Most of them are In-Home Support Services workers -- the people who take care of our sick and our old for us. They receive $8 per hour -- less than $17,000 per year -- for their backbreaking and largely thankless labor, which allows our society to partially and lamely fulfill our contract with its citizenry. Members of the Board of Supervisors work hard, no doubt. But they do not work as hard as five IHSS workers. They might not work as hard as one of them.
There was a time when leadership and service was an honor, which carried with it its own rewards. There was a time when it was something more than a chance to suckle the public teat. Our elected representatives should recall those principles, especially in a time of crisis, as some of their colleagues have already done. These raises should not stand.