Gotta say, I’m completely on board with Rob Ott on this one.

Mr. Ott is the Manhattan city government’s public works director. At a budget-related meeting this week, he and other department heads were making budget request presentations to the City Commission, the elected officials who vote on what the city’s budget will be. That budget affects your taxes and mine, so we have a direct stake in it, which is why our elected officials get to cast the vote.

That budget also directly affects the livelihood of city government employees, including Mr. Ott and the people who work for him. And, to be clear, all other city department heads and the people who work for them.

At issue is a proposal for the city to spend $80,000 during the coming budget year for a consultant to do what’s called a “salary study.” That’s the term used for a document that compares jobs here with jobs at other employers, locally and in comparable communities around the nation. As a practical matter, a salary study is almost always just a way for the government to justify raising employee pay by saying: “It’s these out-of-town consultants’ fault!”

To be fair, it can be useful information for any employer, to understand where they stand in terms of pay compared to other relevant employers. Labor is a market, after all.

But here’s the thing: $80,000 is an awful lot of money to pay for that kind of information. The reality is that any employer can probably get a pretty good idea for a whole lot less than that. And ultimately, the only real thing that matters is whether the employer is getting the quality of work that they want — if good employees are leaving for better jobs, and only crummy employees will take the job anymore, then you’ll probably need to raise the pay. Not too complicated.

I don’t know if Manhattan city government employees are paid too much or too little. Generally, it seems to me that we as a community are well-served our public employees, and so there doesn’t seem to be a big problem. Do they deserve more? Of course. So do newspaper reporters, and printing press operators, and teachers, and probably Patrick Mahomes. But “deserve” is a moral term, and we’re talking about a market here.

At the budget hearing, city department heads said that if the city was going to pay for a salary study, commissioners ought to commit to implementing the findings of the study. They noted that the last time was done, in 2014, it basically just gathered dust.

I’m not too sure about that line of argumentation — first of all, it assumes that the study will find that city employees here are underpaid. And second, it feels like some sort of blackmail.

But I did think Mr. Ott hit the nail on the head. If the city is willing to spend $80,000 for a salary study that it doesn’t use, why not just give the money to city employees to start with, and forget about paying a consultant for information you’re not going to use?

Hard to argue with that.

Recommended for you