Government is a bargain for taxpayers
By BILL COTTERELL
The Tallahassee Democrat
This federal income tax deadline day is a good time to consider the cost of government in our lives.
While they grumble about the IRS every year, Floridians probably don't realize that state government is a real bargain for taxpayers. That's not just an opinion, it's unavoidable conclusion drawn from new figures compiled the by the Division of Human Resource Management. For at least the second year in a row, state agencies show the nation's lowest public payroll cost per resident. And Florida has the third-lowest ratio of public employees to population, moving up from eighth-lowest a year earlier.
You won't hear this from candidates running for office next summer -- especially not legislative candidates south of Perry or west of Marianna, parts of the state where depicting Tallahassee as the land of somnolent, incompetent bureaucrats is the expected stereotype. With term limits taking out so many House and Senate members, you can count on plenty of newcomers promising to get in here and hack away at all that waste and fat.
It makes good vitriol for campaign commercials. But most of those who get to the Legislature learn that state agencies are neither over-staffed nor under-worked, especially not with Governor Jeb Bush and his agency heads ever alert for things to reorganize and privatize.
But, for candidates who'd like a fact or two before whupping up on briefcase-totin' bureaucrats, here are some pertinent numbers about state employment.
The largest state in the region, Florida ranks fifth among 12 Southeastern states in average Career Service salary for last year. The $28,490 average salary is right on the money for the regional average, which is $28,486. Neighboring Alabama is a full $2,595 ahead of Florida, and we're only $271 ahead of Georgia's average.
Personnel costs in Florida take $33 a year from every man, woman and child in the state. That figure, the nation's lowest, is a buck cheaper than it was in 1997.
Also, Florida has 145 state employees for every 10,000 residents -- down from 155 a year earlier. The state leaped from eighth to third place in that measure, probably as the result of belt-tightening done in the last years of Gov. Lawton Chiles' tenure, after Republicans took over both the House and Senate.
If the numbers seem a little shelf-worn, comparing 1997 to 1998, it's because not all 50 states compile their data at the same time of year. Also, it takes the Department of Management Services a while to compile agency-by-agency data on salary, leave usage, turnover and hundreds of other details.
But the trends don't change rapidly. Given what Bush and the Legislature are doing in holding down the state budget and turning more services back to the local level or private sector, we can expect next year's comparative staffing levels to be down more. Maybe Florida will leapfrog Illinois (138) and California (127) and claim the lowest employees-to-population ratio.
If you're wondering, the most expensive state governments are in Hawaii ($121 cost per resident and 565 employees per 10,000 population) and Alaska ($133 and 416 per 10K folks). But those states are different in a lot of ways.
Compared to our conservative southern neighbors, Florida stands out in both per-resident cost and employee ratios. In Georgia, payroll cost per person is $39 and there are 175 employees per 10,000 population. In Alabama, it's $47 and 221; South Carolina, $51 and 249; and Mississippi, $46 and 214.
Senior writer Bill Cotterell grew up in Miami and served four years in the United States Marine Corps before beginning his journalism career with United Press International in Columbia, S.C., in 1967. He later covered government and politics in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tallahassee and Atlanta, and worked as a general-assignment reporter for UPI in Miami and Birmingham, Alabama. Cotterell joined the Democrat in 1985 as a general- assignment reporter, but was assigned to the Capitol bureau later that year, specializing in stories of interest to state employees.
Write Cotterell at email@example.com
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