- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

A $100,000-a-year salary is not a hallowed mark, as the mayor’s mouthpiece indicated last week, although the high number of six-figured employees in the budget-strapped city pushes the notion of institutional waste and temerity.

City officials are looking to implement a review that somehow explains the relevance of 575 employees earning $100,000 a year or more. The best guess is it just goes with the territory. Their standard operating method is to pass the costs along to a public they purport to serve and protect.

There ceased to be any rhyme and reason to it all a long time ago.

The favored response of the victims is to cross borders, to either the suburbs of Maryland or Virginia, as revealed with each census.

In a locale of 572,059 inhabitants, down from 606,900 with the 1990 census, the District is burdened with a startling number of paper-pushing bureaucrats, 34,000 in all, the justification of which exhausts even the best spin doctors in the city.

Baltimore, whose population is 651,000, employs 15,000 city workers, 34 of whom pull down six-digit salaries. The comparison is difficult to swallow, considering the uneven quality of the services provided by the District. The city has its so-so days and bad, either forms a sign to laugh or cry.

One D.C. Council member, Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, appears to be concerned with the ever-burgeoning glut of $100,000-a-year employees, whose number has grown by 48 percent under the watchful eye of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Mr. Fenty at least wants the city to review the matter. A review is not to be confused with a purge.

Eliminating the excess takes political guts, as opposed to slipping another fee increase on the masses to make up for the latest person to join the $100,000 club.

The city is not where it is with its budget because of an inability to see the obvious. It is just not easy to pare the excess. You lose votes. You lose political capital. You alienate organized labor as well as friends of friends. You create fallout, if not a flood of trial lawyers seeking restitution for their aggrieved clients.

It is easier to have three employees doing the job of one, or doing no job at all. It is easier to preserve the status quo, even in the post-September 11 climate that demands bold leadership and a departure from business as usual.

Mr. Williams already has been down this difficult path, in 1997, when he served as the city’s chief financial officer. He canned 165 employees in his midst, citing incompetence while jarring a body of workers accustomed to lifetime employment, no questions asked.

By the time Mr. Williams embarked on his first mayoral campaign the next year, he was newly corrected in the self-preserving practice of lifetime employment. He told city workers not to worry, and so the worry remains with the public.

As a public service, The Washington Times has clarified the imposing numbers for city leaders in a manner too hard to ignore. The response so far has been to huff and puff and hope it eventually goes away.

Like it or not, the institutional inefficiency collides with the inaugural goal of the mayor to increase the population of the city by 100,000 in the next decade.

“It is very, very important,” Mr. Williams said at the start of the year.

It is very, very simple: Improve the public schools and basic services, ease the cost of living in the city on the masses and lower the homicide rate.

This would reverse the seemingly intractable downward population trend of a city that boasted a high of 802,178 residents in 1950. The city has its impressive qualities, not counting the free rides on the flying manhole covers. The mayor’s sell job should not have to be hard.

Washington, alas, is all too familiar with the drill. Sharon Pratt Kelly came into the mayor’s office with a broom in hand and a mandate to clean house. That was 12 years ago. The house is still waiting to be cleaned.

Nothing fundamental ever seems to change, no matter how many well-meaning words are dispensed.

City Administrator John A. Koskinen, who is in charge of the review, is endeavoring to determine “how many people we have working and what it is that they are doing.” A salary review, in his mind, seems unnecessary.

“We don’t think we are paying people too much,” he said last week.

That is supposed to be reassuring.

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