Our $245K city manager’s salary exceeds VP Biden’s—while our public library must skimp (short version)

The latest: I got a prompt, friendly call from Alexandria Mayor William Euille after I e-mailed him, and I’ve updated the longer version of the post below. Bottom line: The local library funding issue, more important to me than the compensation issue per se, is still in the air. But far, far more significantly in terms of the mission of this Web site, Mr. Euille is very open to the idea of a city resolution calling for a national digital library endowment. He and I will follow up to see if it can happen, and meanwhile we’ll agree to disagree on what I consider to be excessive pay for some top city officials. – D.R. 

Joe BidenAlexandria, VA, my hometown, has a population of 146,000 or so. And yet City Manager Rashad Young draws a salary of $245K a year, more than the vice president of the United States (some $231K). 

Many philosophical questions arise about the nature of “public service” in the context of a discussion on library funding and Young’s salary. I covered them in the previous post of some 2,800 words. But for the time-short, here’s the somewhat tweaked essay in a nutshell, along with a few other thoughts.

–Shouldn’t the traditional public service ethos count as much as the marketplace when governments set public officials’ salaries? Must we entirely ditch Kennedy-era idealism? This goes far beyond Mr. Young. He wouldn’t have gotten his job at a salary of $245K if city officials had not approved.

–Why is the city manager of Alexandria paid a higher salary than Joe Biden (photo)? And just a little less, as of 2012, than the county executive in near-by Fairfax County—eight times Alexandria’s size? Combined with retirement benefits and others, Mr. Young ‘s $245K salary is more than half of my city’s shrunken budget for buying library books and other items. Since writing this post initially, I have checked in with a city manager’s trade association and learned that some other Virginia cities, too, are overpaying (as I would interpret it). But does this make it right?

–Even in a high-priced place like the D.C. area, can’t public officials like Mr. Young live very, very well on $175K a year rather than $245K? Jacked-up housing costs are the main reason for this area’s outrageous cost of living, perhaps a fifth or a quarter higher than the national average. But the $650K house that a $175K salary could buy here would still be no hovel.

–Since Mr. Young’s budget document is so keen on austerity and “priorities,” will he give up part of his $245K, just as President Obama agreed to do with his own salary during the sequestration crisis? Would Mr. Young be open to a freeze on all increases in his compensation over the next few years? On compensation in all forms? With retirement benefits and others added to the $245K, how much is he costing us taxpayers each year?

–Will he also encourage other highly paid city officials to agree to make financial sacrifices in the spirit of President Obama? Granted, Mr. Obama has ample income from private sources. But then he isn’t overpaid, given the importance of his job. No anti-Obama jokes here about “earning it.” I’d say the same if Rand Paul were President.

–What about the multiplier effect of high salaries? If people at the top are paid more, it can spread to those immediately below them.

–Couldn’t the money possibly given up by top Alexandria officials go to the local public library, where the amount spent on books is far below the national average despite the high pay for Mr. Young and some other high-ranking officials?

–Looking beyond the public library—to the schools and nonprofits as well—could the city of Alexandria conduct a “literacy audit”? What’s the extent of the illiteracy problem and related ones here? What resources are going to solutions now? And what might some future solutions be? With so many immigrant families and low-income ones, Alexandria can’t ignore these issues. The money for cures is somewhere. This is also a city of mansions and Mercedes-Benzes. Rich or poor, however, our citizens want a good return on tax dollars.

–In the long run, could we benefit from a national digital library endowment and separate but intertwined academic and public systems—all watched vigilantly for waste of the kind that has plagued our government here in Alexandria?  With a national digital approach, we could more easily spread resources around. In terms of books and other digital items, schoolchildren and others would fare better than now, especially if they lived in rural Mississippi or a town like Alexandria with a library-hostile city budget. At the same time, the national efforts could leave states and localities free to buy their own books, too, if they wanted. See an overview of the endowment concept in the Baltimore Sun, and, if you have time, read the long FAQ. States, localities, relevant professional organizations, and others would do well to pass resolutions supporting the idea.

I’ll alert Mr. Young to the existence of both the short and long versions of the essay, and I hope that he’ll at least respond to questions about his salary. Let me remind people that this is commentary, not a news report. Still, as citizens and taxpayers, we all deserve answers.

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