The Marin Association of Public Employees (MAPE) has gone on strike against the County of Marin and is demanding enormous, guaranteed salary increases over the next three years – a total of 11 percent. Many are asking if this magnitude of increased pay is “fair” to Marin taxpayers. Well, fair is a subjective standard. What I’m wondering is if MAPE’s demands are even tethered to reality in any way, shape or form.
As a preface, I want readers to please understand that this article is not about our courts system’s employees or our Sheriff and fire departments or other public agencies that provide critical public services and who are generally delivering excellent levels of service. This is directed at MAPE’s members, who are the “rank and file” working in the various administrative departments at the Pink Palace.
The rationale for MAPE’s outsized demands are that Marin is such an expensive place to live. This is in spite of the fact that members of MAPE are presently among the highest compensated public “servants” in the country: in the top 1 percent nationwide and higher than those in San Francisco, where the cost of living and housing prices and rents are considerably higher than Marin.
As pointed out by Jody Morales of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, according to Mary Hao, Marin County director of human resources
…research shows that 90 percent of MAPE-represented job qualifications have a pay range that is, on average, 7.8 percent above several other cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Mateo, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Alameda and Contra Costa.
In addition, it has been reported by numerous sources that the combined salary and total benefits compensation packages for MAPE’s County employee members (salary, pension and healthcare benefits for life) are much higher than for comparable jobs in the private sector.
According the Transparent California
Nationwide, average local government wages were 10 percent below private-sector workers. In Marin County, however, local government received an average wage that was 13 percent above what Marin County private-sector workers earned.
More significantly, Marin County government workers also receive significantly higher non-wage benefits than the average private-sector worker. The average annual salary for a working adult in Marin is $64,210. However, the average annual current salary for a MAPE member is $89,060.
That’s a base salary that is 38.7 percent more than the average working person in Marin! And, on top of that, the average total compensation package for a MAPE member working for Marin County is currently over $126,000 per year! And, that doesn't even take into account that they get a guaranteed 2% to 3% cost of living increase (COLA) on their pension benefits, based on their salary, later on.
This considered, a reasonable person has to wonder on what basis is MAPE making these egregious demands to become, perhaps, the highest compensated public employees in the country.
Is it based on individual performance or excellence of services rendered? Is it based on a comparison to how much the average worker in the private sector (those who will pay for their increased salaries) makes for the same jobs? Is it based on actual cases of hardships or other objective data?
Or, is it simply, as we used to say, just highway robbery?
Attracting the best?
For decades, Marin County and all Marin cities have responded to criticism of their hiring practices and questionable salary and benefit packages for public employees, by regurgitating the same mantra: We have to offer the highest salaries and benefits to attract the best people. 
I think it’s time to challenge that assumption. So, let me ask you. When you go to the Marin County Civic Center to try to file a form, or to find some information from the Planning Department or the County Recorder’s Office or the Department of Public Works or any of the County administrative agencies, do you honestly come away feeling that your experience was the “best?”
Speaking only for myself, frankly, no, not even close, when compared to experiences in the private sector. So, let me turn the question around to MAPE members. If you want to be the highest paid public sector employees in the country, don't we, who pay your generous salaries and benefits, have the right to expect our "customer" experience to be the best in the country? And, until you demonstrate that, why should we agree to increase your compensation, when no company in the private sector would do the same?
Anyone who has ever started or run a successful business in the private sector knows that simply throwing money at people and hoping they do a good job never results in better overall performance, or more innovation or a better working environment. In fact, throwing money at people correlates pretty consistently with mismanagement, scandals and business failure.
The secret to attracting the best and the brightest is basically about being the best at what you do: providing the best products and services: being the place where everyone wishes they could get a job.
When you create that, when you demand that, ironically, what happens is that your resultant success allows you to pay and compensate your people really well.
A palace in tatters
In some ways, I can hardly blame County employees, considering the drab environment where they have to work. The Marin Civic Center may qualify as a “World Heritage Site,” but that’s about all it has going for it.
Don’t get me wrong, having spent most of my professional career as an architect and having been a lifelong fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, I appreciate the art of it all. But, let’s face it, the Civic Center in the context of the 21st century, is a total disaster: and I’m not just talking about the roof leaking.
The building is a dystopian mausoleum. The offices are cramped and design layouts are obsolete. The heating and ventilating systems are archaic: the air in the offices is stifling. The acoustics are terrible. The food service is horrendous. Electronics and lighting are totally inadequate or just plain awful.
The Board of Supervisors chambers may be the worst offender. Tucked away in the far corners of the upper most level, as far from the daily comings and goings of the public as possible, the low ceiling-ed public hearing room with its almost inaudible sound system constantly challenges occupants to stay awake.
This is not unimportant nitpicking. There has been a great deal of research done in the past few years showing that the quality or lack of quality of one’s workplace environment directly correlates with poorer performance and diminished mental and physical health. In a word, I find the whole place just plain depressing. It needs a major remodel.
But, I digress.
Making the same mistakes over and over
In the year leading up to the NASDAQ market crash of March of 2000 and the years leading up to the global, financial meltdown of 2008, Marin County and many other government bodies made the mistake of extrapolating conditions at the moment, ad infinitum. Everyone was overly optimistic and “What, me worry?” was the operative sentiment.
The results have been a disastrous drain on public funds ever since, leading to numerous municipal bankruptcies.
In both instances, elected leaders gave away the store in their negotiations with public employees, offering unsustainable salaries and pension benefits with unrealistic cost of living increases and retirement promises that have continued to consume greater and greater percentages of local government’s overall revenues.
Because of this, as the Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans have so carefully documented, the future of pension costs does not look bright, even if all goes perfectly according to plan and the business cycle is magically repealed.
But, how likely is that?
While the stock market continues to make new highs and consumer sentiment rises, the telltale signs of recession again loom larger by the day and evidence that our economy is becoming more fragile, increase.
Stock market margin debt is at or near the highest it’s been in history (the market is rising on borrowed money more than on real investment). Forward-looking price to earnings ratios for the average equity are in an historically high range. Single family housing prices continue to rise and set new highs, but on rapidly decreasing volume of sales. The news is filled with stories of how unaffordable it is to live in the SF Bay area, while rents in San Francisco have actually been falling for more than 18 months.
Meanwhile, trade wars loom, interest rates are rising, new business formation continues to fall, the deferred costs of infrastructure maintenance continue to accumulate, tax cuts only help the wealthy, unfunded pension liabilities continue to rise and the anticipated returns on investment used by pension fund managers, required to make those huge pension payments, continue to remain ridiculously and unrealistically high.
I guess some people never learn, because from what I can see we’re about to do it again.
Why is it that historically, just at the moment we should be starting to be cautious, society tends to throw caution to the wind?
What to do
All things considered, here is my two cents on how the Marin Board of Supervisors should respond to MAPE’s demands.
So far, MAPE has demanded an 11 percent salary increase across the board over the next three years. The BOS came back with an offer of 7 percent. MAPE refused to even discuss it and went on strike.
Here is how the BOS should respond:
“As representatives of the taxpayers of Marin County and the stewards of the financial solvency of the County, our final offer to MAPE is this:
“Nothing. No raise in salary or benefits. Our original offer has been withdrawn.
“We suggest you all shine up your resumes and wish you all the best of luck finding a job out there in the real world, where you can have an equally low bar of performance and receive such enormous benefits and a lifetime of financial security.
“I’m sure there are thousands of young, college educated workers coming into the workforce, who would jump at the chance to work in beautiful Marin, to enjoy a six figure compensation package, and who will bring much needed energy and creativity and a fresh perspective on how government can better serve the public, who pays their wages.
“Thank you so much for your service. And, don’t let the screen door hit you in the butt on the way out.”
And, in case anyone thinks I've written what I have because I'm against unions, nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not against unions and a fair wage. What I'm against is as old as history itself: greed.
 Transparent California
 In my own town of Mill Valley, I’ve witnessed firsthand that this approach to hiring has only led to scandals, malfeasance, and an enormous waste of public resources.