Toward the end of his 1789 inaugural address, President George Washington said he didn’t want a salary.
But he took the money, a sizable $25,000 annually that is $847,000 in 2022 dollars, because the newly enacted Constitution made it clear: The job pays what it pays.
That’s proper. Public servants should take every penny the job pays, and if they want to then give it away, they ought to do so quietly.
A recent Newsday story reported that Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman is taking the entire salary he is entitled to, $211,821, in 2022, an 8% increase over what predecessor Laura Curran earned in 2021.
Nassau’s law says the county executive salary increases annually by the lesser of 4% or the rate of inflation. A county spokesman said that when the Republican took office, his pay was automatically set at the full number to reflect increases Curran never took.
Curran said she was not offered the option to accept less pay upon taking office, either, then served at the same rate for four years.
It's so confusing because the county passed a system of salary increases recommended by a commission in 2007 without updating the county charter.
That also explains why Blakeman won’t take the 4% increase to $220,294 in 2023: He can’t. The county charter says elective officers can’t take a raise during the first two years of any term.
That’s fine, if silly. What’s problematic is performative charitability that has elected officials refusing money they earn serving the public, or making a public spectacle of giving it away.
There are pitfalls in such acts. We pay elected officials because they are public servants. When they do the work for less than full wages, it falsely implies they are doing residents a favor.
And taking less because you don’t need cash sets up an unfair comparison with another candidate or a successor with more kids and expenses, or fewer resources. They shouldn’t look bad for taking fair pay.
In 2016, President Donald Trump promised to refuse his pay. Forced to accept it, Trump donated the money to federal agencies. He also made a big deal about it, claiming he was the only president to do so even though Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy also donated all their pay. But the donations didn’t imply Trump was kind or generous, or meaningfully funding the government. They just made it clear he’s rich.
In Suffolk, County Executive Steve Bellone took $187,000 in 2012, his first year, less than he was entitled to, then refused hikes until 2020 when he accepted $35,000 in accumulated raises.
“When I came in, layoffs were on the table, and taking full pay seemed like the wrong message,” Bellone said. “When the finances improved, I took the raises.”
“But believe me,” he chuckled, “Tracy [Bellone’s wife] agrees with you!”
Politicians who refuse their pay or give it away are often well-intentioned, but if the largesse were truly selfless and not political, would we even know about it?
We don’t need unpaid politicians because we don’t want elective service portrayed as a favor the well-off perform for the masses, or as a job for which people with excess cash are better qualified.
Public servants should have to take all the pay, to remind us who works for whom. And if they want to give it away, they should keep it to themselves.
Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.