COLUMN: Taxpayers can’t afford council raise

Saturday Beat

Politicians in Nanaimo and other B.C. cities are in an awkward position when it comes to deciding on their own remuneration.

Historically, being a city councillor has been a part-time job, requiring about 15-20 hours a week of meetings and attending various, if not optional, functions.

Times have changed. With provincial downloading over the years, municipal politicians are now faced with not only managing their city’s respective budgets that exceed $100 million, but far more contentious and complex issues such as social housing, infrastructure, and other issues that used to be addressed by provincial departments.

What’s more, carrying a BlackBerry makes them accessible 24/7 and held to task by the whims of an electorate that is bombarded with information (some of it dubious) on a continual basis.

Being a city councillor in Nanaimo in 2011 is a busy task, and to do it effectively it would be difficult to have a full-time job and complete the demands being on council requires.

But should the position be considered a full-time job, with full-time pay to match?

Not in my opinion.

Currently, a city councillor earns $26,414, a third of which is tax-free. Councillors here also receive stipends for travel costs and other expenses, all of it billed to the Nanaimo taxpayer.

Recently, council just approved a 24-per cent pay increase over three years to bring it to the median remuneration of 12 similarly sized B.C. municipalities, which, by the end of 2014 ,would see our councillors paid about $34,500.

While this may seem a drop in the budgetary bucket, there are several reasons giving themselves a substantial raise is hard for the average taxpayer to swallow.

First, the optics are bad. Who other than a politician can vote him or herself a 24-per cent raise (which was recommended by staff, which, in my opinion, doesn’t make the optics look any better)?

A third-party auditor should be responsible for administering pay increases. Even better, councillor salaries should be affixed to some kind of pay scale based on size of municipality and experience.

Second, workers in the private sector would have been extremely fortunate over the past three years just to get a cost of living increase, which would have been around two per cent, let alone any kind of raise. With rising inflation – been to the grocery store lately? – and private sector paycheques that have stagnated since 2008, watching elected officials get a significant pay bump is hard to justify.

Third, maybe the modern day councillor is taking too much on. At last count, councillors were expected to fill up roles on no less than 26 committees and commissions, not including any of the new economic development duties.

From transportation to water committees to parks and rec commissions, social planning, grants advisories, environment and sustainability, these people spend ridiculous hours sitting around tables. It’s great to be involved, but it needn’t be that demanding. This is a city of 90,000 people, not a sprawling metropolis.

I’m not saying councillors don’t deserve it – others might argue that – I’m saying taxpayers simply can’t afford it.

If the city was swimming in cash, with all of its infrastructure guaranteed to stay intact for the next 100 years and property taxes guaranteed to rise only at the cost of inflation (they don’t), I would say go for it, request a raise.

But the reality is cities are in a precipitous downward spiral when it comes to services provided and what the taxpayer can afford.

The gap is ever widening, and with an unemployment rate in Nanaimo of more than 12 per cent and water and sewer line infrastructure costs that alone could bring the city close to bankruptcy, this is not the time to be adding more stress to the taxpayers’ burden.