On February 7th, the Gazette reported that three recently elected county officials, Tammy Vopat, Jeff Cope, and Vicky Lopez, voted themselves significant pay increases. One elected official, Dora Hartig, decided not to take an increase, citing two reasons – “it is so very true that the taxpayers elected me to have their best interest at heart” and “With the economy and budgets the way they are, I just couldn’t do it.”
The rationales used for the increases were varied. Ms. Vopat cited concerns that longevity increases, etc. had put her department in a place “where there are employees that are making almost what the elected officials are making, and they aren’t department heads.” Jeff Cope cited comps with other law enforcement agencies. At the time the article was written Ms. Lopez was not available for comment.
Public reaction to the news was swift, particularly in local watering holes. The Gazette described it as a “public lashing.” KVOE conducted a poll, asking the question “Do you agree with the decision of several Lyon County elected officials to grant themselves pay raises for this year?” As of this morning, about 85% disagreed with the decisions the officials made. It’s clear that the decisions were extremely unpopular. It’s also clear that more than just a few revolutionaries in our pubs didn’t like the decisions.
Why is the public so against the decisions? Is it because the people of Lyon County are mean-spirited skinflints? Is it because the people don’t understand market forces? Is it because the people have personal axes to grind?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding NO!
The people of Lyon County have been very generous to their public officials. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the average individual in Lyon County makes $18,898 per year. The average Lyon County household brings in $37,954. And, Lyon County’s poverty rate is 21.2%, ranking it one of the highest in Kansas. With the pay increases these elected officials approved for themselves, their individual incomes are now about three times higher than the average citizen they serve. Their individual incomes are even higher than our average household incomes. If that isn’t generosity, I don’t know what is.
The people of Lyon County also understand that market forces are all too often grinding on them. They know that our incomes are unacceptably low and that our poverty rate is unacceptably high. They get their tax bills every year and see that the cost of supporting our government enterprises is going steadily up. They see their tax bills doubling while their incomes and prospects remain stagnant. The news of neighbors losing jobs when Dolly Madison recently closed isn’t dead letter to them. They’ve seen it up close, in a very personal way. They’re not fools. They know that almost anything can be “justified” by manipulating numbers or making incomplete or selective comparisons to other Kansas counties. They know all too well that our individual and household incomes are lower, often by double digits, than Crawford, Franklin, Geary, and Harvey counties. They also know our poverty rate is higher, most often by 10 percent or more. They know that in the end the justifications will mean that the guys in the corner offices get double digits while the folks in the third line trenches get rice and beans.
The bottom line is this. The people of Lyon County understand the metrics of this situation quite well. They understand all of this and more and they’re feeling a bit angry. Their anger is justified.
And it’s not about personal vendettas. Most of us voted for these folks and we like them, irrespective of their decisions. My personal interactions with Tammy Vopat and her department have always been cordial and professional. I’ve only spoken to Jeff Cope a few times and our conversations have been quite friendly. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak with Vicky Lopez, but I know her husband and we’ve always had a good relationship. He’s a good man and I assume that his choice of a life partner means that, like most of us, he married up in life.
No, this isn’t about personal vendettas. It’s about wisdom and timing. It’s mystifying to me that some of our elected officials seem to know so little about the day to day struggles of their constituents and the impact their decisions have on those struggles. And, it’s even more mystifying to hear that if we don’t like the decisions we can vote them out of office in the next election cycle. The sound of the insensitivity is deafening. The wisdom deficit is startling.
Is there a way out? Perhaps it’s too late, but I think it would be refreshing to hear that our elected officials have heard the people and decided to reverse course.