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Exciting election ahead for community

On your marks, get set, go! Qualifying for county elections ended on Friday and an amazingly high number of citizens have thrown their hats in the ring to seek elected public offices.

All total, 55 candidates have qualified to run for elected county offices.

Although no one seems to have ever kept a good record of past years, most political watchers say they cannot recall a county race with as many candidates, so it’s possible this is a record in the making.

The alternative — a race with no candidates except the incumbents run — is always disappointing to see.

Our country’s system of government works best when citizens get motivated to help the greater good and throw their hats in the ring.

But something unusual has changed in the last decade or two.

Once upon a time, the elected leaders of the community were almost all business owners or business managers. These were people who did the business of government with the same approach they took to their work.

We still have a few of those kind of folks, but a trend has been occurring over the last couple of decades — public servants who have a part-time job as an elected official that becomes a full-time job for them. Effectively, their sole income is what they earn from the part-time elected positions.

With a few exceptions, most public servants aren’t paid well.

Many of them could probably earn higher salaries in the private sector, but most private sector jobs don’t come with the perks a “government job” includes.

Those perks are what make public office so attractive to the throngs of people who seem to line up, hopeful they can get elected — even if they have no real knowledge of what the job entails or the skills needed to perform the job at hand.

In Mississippi, those perks include all the usual stuff — government holidays off and such — but they also include participation in the state’s hefty retirement plan.

The Mississippi Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will require a more than 17-percent employer contribution beginning in July. That means for every $10,000 in salaries state and local pays out, they also must add another $1,740 to invest in PERS.

That funding level was increased last year — going into effect this year — to the tune of an additional $100 million that taxpayer funds must cover.

That’s a level of retirement funding practically unheard of in the private sector and one of the biggest reasons, it would seem, people run for office.

PERS is not fully funded, meaning that it does not have the money to pay out all that it would owe to current employees when they retire and existing, retired employees.

At last notice, the system was funded at something like 61 percent. That means, barring significant jumps in PERS’ investments, someone is going to have to shovel lots of cash into that system one day soon. (That someone, by the way, is you and me).

So how could we attract higher quality applicants to run for public office and avoid just getting people who are hoping to get elected and hang on a few years until they can retire?

Simple. Make two changes.

1). Stop allowing new state and local government workers to enroll in PERS. Such public plans are enormous anchors around our children’s future when the piper must eventually be paid.

2). Drastically increase the pay for true leaders in elected offices so that the positions might attract more of the best and brightest rather than more of the desperate and hopeful.

Perhaps then candidates would come forward with enough experience, stature and know-how to attract voters to oust a few of the people who seem to be working in government only for the pension.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.

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