It seemed an odd fit. A diehard, hardened Republican politico owning and running a women’s swimsuit boutique.
But Art Falls once said the business principles are the same no matter what you’re doing — be honest, take good care of the customers and watch your expenses. He just happened to be selling women’s swimsuits at a place on Longboat Key called the Sea Stable.
Principles. Art Falls had them, rock-solid principles that revolved around doing what’s right.
With Falls’ death this past Saturday in Sarasota — exactly one month shy of his 87th birthday — Longboat Key lost one of its community godfathers and a man who spent 30 years making Longboat Key a better place for everyone — residents, visitors and businesses.
Asked once, at a time when Longboat Key’s businesses were encountering resistance and opposition for the upteenth time, why he pressed on at Town Hall and didn’t give up, Falls responded with what actually summed up his philosophy of life:
“If you don’t like the way things are, it doesn’t do any good to complain. Get involved, and do the best you can to make things better.”
Art Falls lived that way for 30 years on Longboat Key. He was involved — a stalwart of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key; and always a campaigner for the Town Commission candidates in whom he believed.
You couldn’t help but like this quick-witted, New York native. He had shaken the nasty influences of Illinois politics and on Longboat Key was truly an unpretentious, honest, down-to-earth Midwesterner. There were Longboat residents who didn’t agree with Falls’ politics, but they liked this easygoing guy.
Falls was not an out-front headline seeker. True to his previous career in Illinois politics, which included running the successful Illinois presidential campaign of Gerald Ford, Falls worked behind the scenes.
When we took over ownership of the Longboat Observer in 1995, Falls was one of the first businesspeople we met. He drove to the Longboat Observer office on his own initiative in his tan Toyota Camry to introduce himself.
That was Falls — he took the initiative. We should have visited him first. After all, he was among the newspaper’s top five advertising customers at the time.
We saw the Falls low-key style in action from the start. He was a learner, discovering who you were, welcoming, sizing you up. He was a great observer of people and the dynamics that accompanied them. He studied how people behaved, watched the politics of groups and then would quietly go about coalition building at one-on-one lunches or coffees or phone calls to influence an outcome. Art Falls had the ear of every town commissioner for nearly three decades. When he called, they listened. They sought his advice.
Art Falls was an idea machine. Good ideas. Although careful not to meddle where he shouldn’t, he always had great suggestions — for how to improve the Longboat Observer or what we might say to help steer the Town Commission in our editorials.
Falls himself was a frequent contributor to our “My View” columns, offering ideas to improve the town. In one of his last columns, in 2007, he candidly explained why the former Avenue of the Flowers shopping center (now site of the new Publix) struggled to keep stores open: the high cost of rent and regulations and many residents’ desire not to have summer tourists.
At the time, Falls’ company was operating three stores on the Key — the Sea Stable, Susan Stribling’s and Brightwater Boutique.
Perhaps one of Falls’ legacies on Longboat Key is today’s Longboat Key Gourmet Lawn Party — formerly the annual St. Jude Gourmet Luncheon. It would not still be in existence were it not for Falls.
Falls saw in the mid-2000s the charitable luncheon was on the verge of dying. For nearly 25 years, it was always pulled together by a small group of informal volunteers. But they were burned out.
Worried that this one event would disappear — the one time when Longboaters come together as friends and neighbors in a community event — Falls suggested the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key take on the luncheon as an annual fundraiser.
He, more than anyone, made that happen.
For Art Falls, a man who loved Longboat Key, that legacy must go on. He deserves it.
We were blessed and privileged to call him a friend.
+ It pays to be a civil servant
One of the many challenges of any business is the aging of its workforce.
It’s a tug and pull, a benefit and, to some extent, a curse.
You know the story: When you have a young work force, your company’s wages tend to be on the lower of the scale of what a job is worth and what the market will bear. The skill and wisdom levels tend to be on the low end, too. But the advantages are an enthusiastic work force and one whose low costs allow a company to keep the pricing of its products and services competitive.
In contrast, when you have an experienced work force, you get the benefits of wise(r) decision making, long-term customer relationships and low turnover, a great benefit for any employer. But you pay for all of that in higher wages, which, in turn, can make your company’s products and services more expensive than those of the upstart competition.
Indeed, in the marketplace of free enterprise, the less-expensive competitor keeps constant pressure on the market leaders to remain efficient and keep costs — especially wages — at competitive levels. If they don’t, those businesses lose out and eventually decline.
Now contrast that environment with that of local governments. The incentives to operate at maximum efficiency don’t exist the same way they do in the private sector.
Sure, taxpayers’ unwillingness to pay higher taxes holds government spending — including government employees’ wages — in check. But local governments seldom feel the pressure of market forces to become more efficient or to be low-cost providers of services. As a result, bureaucracies become entrenched and expensive.
This was clearly evident in the salary-and-benefit table published last week in the Longboat Observer. Consider the average salary of six fire lieutenants: $79,458 a year. The parks and recreation manager: $64,417 (parks and recreation manager?). Office managers: $61,256 and $53,560.
Altogether, the average salary and benefits paid to the town’s 108 employees are $61,868 and $48,900, respectively. The total for both is $11,962,284 a year, or an average of $110,762 per employee per year.
We guarantee you: There aren’t any private-sector companies in this area with 108 employees with similar wage scales.
What should make this more concerning for taxpayers is the aging of the town’s workforce. It’s an experienced team, and with each year, the salary levels are likely to continue to rise.
This is not to say town employees are not worth what they are paid. Instead, we’re suggesting it’s incumbent on town commissioners to avoid Washington-itis, that awful system of bloated, inefficient civil service.
Often times, Longboat Key residents don’t pay close attention to the up-or-down blips in their Longboat Key property-tax rates. After all, Longboat’s property taxes typically account only for about 13% of a property owner’s total tax bill.
But those tax rates matter. They affect property values. And as the city of Detroit shows, when elected leaders egregiously quit paying attention to the cost of government and promises made to government employees, disaster eventually results.
Longboat Key residents have said for decades they are willing to pay for high-level, high-touch town services. But there is always a limit. At the least, commissioners should seek annual benchmarks that assure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth, not a bloated bureaucracy.