It's a myth that hard times bring out the best in people. They don't. It's something we say to comfort ourselves, to find meaning in tribulation.
But it's not true. Hard times generally make what was already bad worse, and they tend to introduce new, unanticipated bad things into the mix.
That's why they call ‘em hard times, I guess.
In better times, the issue of how much public servants are paid isn't really much of an issue, for two reasons: 1) Public sector salaries, even healthy ones, are generally lower than their private sector equivalents; and 2) when everybody's doing pretty good for themselves they're more tolerant of good things happening to other people.
In economic hard times, however, the issue of salaries - specifically of inappropriately high salaries and inopportune pay raises - tends to come to the fore.
The rare nightmare scenario is an outlandish, borderline-criminal situation, such as the one experienced by the hapless citizens of little Bell, California. Corrupt city council members there, who make 100 grand a year themselves, finagled to pay the city manager nearly $800,000 a year and the police chief nearly $500,000 a year, among other steroidal payouts.
All in a town of 40,000 people, with only 80 full-time city employees.
(The Bell situation has been used by some to attack public employee unions, but the fact is that Bell became a "charter city" through a 2005 special election in which only 400 voters showed up. The charter status, not unions, was what led to the abnormally high salaries.)
I understand the visceral, almost violent anger of Bell townspeople on TV at how their tax money has been abused. The fact that few of them would be likely to show similar anger toward Wall Street thieves - who have defrauded the country's taxpayers on a scale many orders of magnitude larger - shouldn't minimize their very real frustration.
But what if those outrageous Bell salaries were half that? Would the reaction be similar?
That brings us to Savannah, where our current acting city manager - i.e., she doesn't even have the job permanently yet - makes more money than not only our outgoing city manager of 15 years, but more than the city manager of Richmond, Va., which is about twice our size and a state capital.
Our police chief and fire chief also make significantly more than their counterparts in similarly-sized cities. Several other high-ranking city employees received five-figure pay increases over the last year, in the middle of the worst economy in nearly a century.
Still, Savannah's salaries are nowhere near Bell-level absurdity, and in economic good times they'd barely merit a second glance. (Besides, in a town with crime this bad, do you really want the police chief to make peanuts?)
Ah, but these certainly aren't economic good times. Making matters worse - egregiously worse, and here we begin to tread on Bell territory - City Council is considering a property tax increase to fill the budget, rather than looking more closely at those salaries.
It's a smallish increase - only an extra 28 cents per property owner per month, or so the propaganda goes. But the point is not just the money itself, but the message such a tax increase would send.
Not Bell-level contempt for suffering taxpayers, not Wall Street-level contempt for suffering taxpayers, but contempt just the same.
The City of Savannah has, in the big picture, developed a lot of credibility over the years for its good fiscal management. While municipalities all over the country are going broke, Savannah almost always keeps an even keel financially while providing a fairly high level of services. It would be a shame for city leaders to squander that hard-earned credibility with such a tone-deaf move.
While City Council members who vote for the tax increase are unlikely to suffer at the ballot box - a huge number of local voters don't own homes at all and therefore won't pay any extra taxes - these are, after all, hard times.
And hard times are supposed to bring us closer together, right? Right?