Editorial: Government salaries bear scrutiny

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 12, 2011

Government pay is a hot topic this year, with officials at every level talking about making government smaller. That usually means cutting or freezing staff positions. Rather than speculate about what those positions cost taxpayers, Post readers can base their opinions on the facts and figures found in our Sunshine Week series on local government salaries, The Peopleís Payroll, starting on todayís front page.
Salaries are a sensitive subject. When you work for the government, though, you live with the knowledge that your pay is a matter of public information. Taxpayers have the right to know how their money is spent, including paying employees.
The Post used databases from local governments to compile the stories. Coming up:
Monday: City government
Tuesday: Public schools
Wednesday: Community college
Thursday: Economic development
In addition to stories and charts about The Peopleís Payroll, readers can find databases on www.salisburypost.com/watchdog that list all salaries for Salisbury city government, Rowan County government and the Rowan-Salisbury School System. More databases will be added.
Sunshine Week, which celebrates the publicís right to know, is a good time to share such information. For an example of what can go wrong if citizens arenít monitoring their government, look to Bell, Calif. Last year the Los Angeles Times discovered the Bell city manager had an annual compensation package of $1.5 million and City Council members were paid $100,000 a year. You wonít find anything like that in Rowan County ó not even close.
Public employees often receive generous benefits to compensate for their traditionally low pay. For example, employees of the state, Rowan County and Salisbury do not pay premiums for their own health insurance, unlike most peers in the private sector. In most instances, public employees do pay for family membersí coverage.
But is government sticking to the low-pay tradition? Last year USA Today analyzed databases and reported that federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations. Whether the same holds true on the state and local level is still a matter for study.
Youíd never have the information to make those comparisons, though, without laws that require transparency in government. To reinforce those laws, the General Assembly is considering an amendment that would write open government into the N.C. Constitution and require a two-thirds ěsupermajorityî vote to create new exemptions to the public records and open meetings laws. Ask your state lawmakers to support the Sunshine Amendment, HB 87 and SB 67.
As U.S. citizens, we have the right and the responsibility to stay informed about our government. People in many other countries wish they could say the same. Thatís something to appreciate ó in Sunshine Week and every other week of the year.