How much is good government worth to you? How much money should elected officials be paid? Now, I hear a chorus of people yelling, “pay them nothing” and making lots of comments about crooked politicians running everything for their own benefit. In an earlier column I suggested that if one really feels that way, he or she should run for office themselves, given their greater “purity of character” than all the elected folks, apparently. In the intervening months, I’ve not seen a tsunami of local folks running for office under the battle cry “they’re all crooks, except me!”
There could be several reasons why this wave of neo-populism did not spring into existence. The most likely is that most readers only see my column when replacing the paper at the bottom of their parakeet cages. But I want to once again leap on my rickety soapbox to talk about the importance of elected officials and specifically what they are paid, and what those salaries say about ourselves.
When I worked for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, I was on the front line, so to speak, of citizen advocacy. When the phone in our office rang it was usually to get some help with a problem or to express a political opinion. Why was I there to answer the phone? Well, because in its wisdom, the federal government allocates a reasonable amount of money to pay for staff and offices. But that is the U.S. Senate. We do not see a similar commitment to constituent service as the state and especially the local level, or at best, see it from time to time. Why? Money of course.
Let’s talk about the most important level of government, the local folks. See? You thought I was going to attack Trump again, but to most Coloradans, the most impactful level of governance is that which happens at the local level. Your potholes are repaired, your kids can go to school, and you can count on a firefighter or a cop showing up when you need one. You need the local level far more than you need the feds nearly all the time.
Which brings me to salaries and how pathetically we pay the local folks (well, most of them).
Colorado Springs pays its city council members about $520 per month. Greeley pays about $1,500 per month while Fort Collins offers city council members the vast sum of roughly $815 per month. Fort Collins voters recently turned down a ballot measure to pay a living wage.
Denver, on the other hand, pays $7,070 monthly.
That means that if you are one of those people outraged at terrible government, and you decide you will actually step up and run, you must first decide if you can, well, live on the salary provided. That is why the Colorado Springs City Council is made up of nice people who can afford to serve the people of our fair city. Therefore, you end up with wealthy or retired folks a great deal of the time. A hard-charging, really smart younger person who wants to serve his or her city simply cannot afford to provide this service to the public.
And that, of course, brings me to Albus Brooks. I first met Albus during a political campaign some years ago, though I don’t know him well. But he impressed me a great deal, and I’m delighted that he was able to run for and win a seat, representing Denver’s 9th District. Albus is smart, young, full of energy and highly capable. But he can afford to be all those nice things, I’m guessing, because his salary is one upon which he and his family can live. And the residents of the 9th are better off for it.
I have no personal beef with the folks serving on the Colorado Springs council. I know most of them a little bit, and they are nice, smart, and committed. But, dear friends, they are essentially volunteers, due to the extremely low salary. The theory that supports such salaries says that you need citizen-statesmen to serve, not people going after a paycheck, and thus the interests of the people of Colorado are better off with poor pay. But another way to look at it is that you get what you pay for.
It is not in our long-term best interest to require essentially a vow of poverty from public servants. These folks work very hard (on both sides of the aisle) and we should pay them as such. And who knows? If we do pay a livable wage, we might get a few more Brooks’ and fewer old retired guys like me, running for office.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.