''It's a form of compensation or an incentive to get people to run for office, and I think we all have a stake in that.''
That's how one member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly defends providing state pension and extended health insurance for local elected officials.
The argument, offered during last week's assembly meeting, presumes that it's common knowledge five years of service on participating municipal assemblies, city councils and or school boards is enough to earn local officials a state pension.
But are most candidates even aware of that benefit? Are we to believe the public enjoys a better selection of would-be municipal servants thanks to the availability of pension and health insurance benefits, a seldom-mentioned form of public tribute that may continue for decades after program participants leave office?
Or, in the case of the assembly, is it the $600 per month stipend (slightly higher for officers) that inspires local citizens to offer themselves as candidates?
Since when has financial compensation been a motivating factor for service on the many citizens boards and panels that oversee operations of local government?
Service on the local assembly, city council or school board is, by its nature, a part time, essentially voluntary endeavor.
Taking advantage of convenient loopholes in state law to use one's elected tenure to claim a pension and health insurance, or pump up the benefits to which a full-time state employee might otherwise be entitled, is, at-best, a self-serving perk.
At worst, it amounts to an abuse of the public trust.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Williams said as much last week as she urged colleagues to make use of a change in state law that allows local elected bodies to quit automatically enrolling in the state retirement system.
Williams contends the change could be made without jeopardizing benefits appropriate for the borough's full-time mayor. The borough attorney thought otherwise, and a majority of William's fellow assemblymembers refused to join her in voluntarily dropping out of the state pension system.
Now that the perks are in the open, perhaps, other local elected officials will show similar restraint in padding their pensions at the public's expense.
If not, we encourage voters to sound out local candidates on the issue prior to the next election.
We think borough voters might be interested in discussing the nature of the compensation package would-be members of the assembly, council or school board aim to claim for their part-time contributions to local government.
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