IS OUR LEGISLATURE A BARGAIN?

Last week I attended a function with several hundred local residents.  There were several fascinating conversations.  One attendee declared that the County Legislature was too large, and proposed reducing its size by about 80%, or down to three members.  I indicated that I thought the Legislature should actually be larger, not smaller.  We had an interesting exchange of ideas and data.  Here is the gist of that conversation.

The primary reason given for reducing the size of the Legislature is that it costs too much for 15 Legislators.  It was noted that Erie County recently reduced the size of its Legislature from 15 members to 11 members.  The argument was made that if 11 Legislators can run a county with almost one million residents, then a county with 50,000 residents can be run by a much smaller governing Board.   Those are interesting arguments, and they deserve consideration.  However, those arguments don’t stand up to close scrutiny.  Erie County has actually reduced the size of its Legislature several times since changing over from a Board of Supervisors about 40 years ago.  Ironically, the expenses for their Legislature appear to increase every time the size of the Legislature has decreased.

The biggest difference between the Erie County Legislature and the Allegany County Legislature isn’t its size.  The major difference involves the use of support staff.  Consider the following differences:

  • Erie County Legislators (“ECLs”) receive office allowances for legislative offices in their home districts.  Allegany County Legislators (“ACLs”) get no office allowances.  We operate out of our homes or private offices, with no reimbursement.  This results in huge savings for Allegany County.
  • ECLs receive phone and computer services at county expense.  ACLs receive no similar allowances.  We pay for those services out of our own pockets, or we do without.
  • ECLs receive allowances for support staff.  Each legislator is authorized to have a secretary and one or more Legislative Assistants.  As the number of ECLs has decreased, the number of support staff has typically increased.  ACLs receive no funding for support staff.  We do most of our own research, writing, and similar work.  The Clerk of the Board and her very capable staff provide general support to the Board, but that is all we get.
  • It is my understanding that ECLs are provided cell phones, computers and similar technology support, but I have not been able to confirm that.  I can report with certainty that ACLs do not receive those devices from the County.
  • Erie County has adopted a County Executive form of county governance.  The County Executive and his numerous staff members perform many duties that the County Administrator, Board Chairman and Committee Chairmen perform in Allegany County.  This cuts out an entire level of bureaucracy and expense.
  • Erie County provides special staff support, including legal counsel, for both the Majority Leader and Minority Leader.  Allegany County provides nothing similar for its Majority and Minority Leaders.

The bottom line is that there are certain duties that must be performed by someone if a county is going to function properly.  Allegany County has chosen to have that work performed by elected Legislators.  Erie County has chosen to have most of those duties performed by salaried employees.  I believe elected officials represent a bargain.  We are not subject to the minimum wage regulations. We receive a fixed salary (without overtime) regardless of how many hours we work.  Hourly workers and salaried staff get higher wages and overtime.  Elected officials must be available and responsive to their constituents.  Employees are far more insulated, and potentially less responsive to voters and taxpayers.

I don’t know a single elected official who is in it for the money.  While I may disagree with some of my colleagues, we all serve out of a desire to improve our community.  We just disagree about how to achieve that result.  I think we should increase the size of our Legislature.

 

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