Apr 29 2009

Did We Do That?

In our last local election here in Quincy, the people voted for the status quo.  Our incumbent mayor had been showing signs of big-fish-small-pond syndrome, allegedly telling a reporter to watch himself, and making city government a little too cozy for his friends and insiders.  People understand—even expect—a certain amount of payola and nepotism in city government, but they also expect some restraint.  (See also: Blagojevich.)  If you hire your nephew for an ordinary wage to mow the city golf course and he plays 18 holes while on the clock every day, people will shrug that off as the cost of government.  But if you hire ten nephews and pay them each $100K to work as beer inspectors in the local taverns, they’ll throw you out of office.  There are limits, and the mayor was starting to stretch them in many people’s minds.

But the challenger didn’t present much of a case for shaking things up, leaving too many questions unanswered in the debates and then saying things out loud that everyone was talking about, but that a smart politician wouldn’t have said into a microphone.  People weren’t sure what to expect from him.  Although the economy is slowing and things aren’t booming like they once were, life in Quincy is still pretty good, so voters decided to keep most of the same people in charge.  That didn’t seem like a completely unreasonable decision under the circumstances.

Well, maybe we should have thought about it a little harder.  In response to these tough economic times, our city officials just voted themselves some healthy pay raises.  They’ve been doing that for at least ten years, but in past years everyone else thought they were getting rich too, thanks to the debt bubble.  Now that the debt bubble has burst, many people are having to get by on less, or at least plan to get by on less when they retire now that their investment accounts have dropped.  Not our city officials; they’re determined to keep living larger every year.  No getting by on less for them.

Here’s a graph showing the change in income for the mayor and his head cronies over the past ten years.  I got the numbers from Quincy News, which got them from the Herald-Whig (which supported the incumbent in the election).  (Click the graph to open full-size in a new window.)

Quincy Income Inequality

Quincy Income Inequality

(A note: The blue line at the bottom is “Other People,” in case the colors aren’t obvious.  The “Other People” numbers are the median personal income for Adams County, and the third one is from 2007, since the Census Bureau doesn’t have 2008 out yet.  I doubt it rose much from 2007-2008, though.)

In a way, nothing has changed over that time.  They were making 2-3 times as much as the rest of us ten years ago, and they still are.  That just means the difference keeps increasing.  Whenever Republicans are in charge, we hear a lot about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and the widening gap between rich and poor.  Well, here’s a good example of that, and Republicans had nothing to do with it.  The truth is, this is the natural progression of government whenever you have the same people in charge for a long time, regardless of their party affiliation.  The longer the same people are in power, the more they feel like they deserve to skim off the top, and the more they gain the ability to game the system for themselves and their friends.

For readers who aren’t from around here, I should point out that $50K is a healthy income in Quincy, where you can get a nice house for $100K, a good sit-down dinner for two costs under $50 almost everywhere, and bars routinely run $1 drink and beer specials.  That income doesn’t make you a rich person here, but since when are “public servants” supposed to be rich anyway?  Eighty thousand is gobs of money in this area.

So why is this news today and not two years ago or ten?  Because we don’t feel rich anymore; we don’t feel like we can afford to have a government that’s on a perpetual shopping spree.  When our home values and mutual funds were climbing by double-digit percentages every year, this didn’t seem that important.  Sure, we disliked government waste and corruption in principle, but we could afford it.  Now we’re not sure we can.

A thousand people turned out for a Tea Party in Quincy the other day, to express concerns like, “Hey, wait a second, maybe we can’t afford all this.  Could we just slow down for a bit, maybe take a second look at the way we’re throwing money around and see if it’s all really that necessary?”  In local terms, that means:   “Do we really need a city budget of $31 million when $20 million was enough just ten years ago?  If the schools can cut back, why can’t the city?”  But when a few of our city council members said the same thing and tried to hold the budget up so those questions could be asked, the mayor accused them of trying to stop progress.  That’s the last refuge of the scoundrel politician, honestly.  “Progress” doesn’t mean simply doing something rather than nothing.  A bad budget isn’t progress, and blocking it doesn’t mean you’re somehow against getting things done.

Now the latest news is that the day after they voted themselves this big new budget full of raises, they took the afternoon off to play golf.  Is that really appropriate?  Am I being anti-progress for even asking the question?  Will I be placed on Homeland Security’s watch list of right-wing extremists now, along with all the Tea Party attendees?

I voted for Bellis (the challenger), so in a way I can say at least this isn’t my fault.  But I didn’t get out and support him either, so maybe that’s speaking too soon.  Not that I alone could have changed the result, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only conservative-thinking person who kept his mouth shut because he couldn’t get excited about another election so soon after last year’s mess, or who was put off by Bellis’s poor campaigning skills.  It didn’t bother me personally that he admitted he didn’t have all the answers at the debate, or that he was rude enough to say in public that when you get big wads of cash from Chicago it’s tainted, but it did bother some people.  Now it looks like we’ll be paying for our lack of enthusiasm for a while—literally, in the case of this budget.

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