Councillors who want raises shouldn’t shoot down others’ living wages

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

If you had come to me months ago and asked if city councillors deserve a raise, it would have been a no-brainer. Absolutely, I’d have said.

Councillors work hard and aren’t paid very much. Their council jobs are supposed to be only part time, but most of them put in full-time hours or more. They’re regularly making decisions about how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars and no matter which side of an issue they take, inevitably they’re going to have to politely endure a bunch of crap from some disgruntled crank (like myself, for instance).

Because of all that — low pay, long hours, loads of responsibility, dealing with grumpy people — most Regina residents would never even consider a run for council. They simply couldn’t survive on a councillor’s salary (see sidebar) while working a councillor’s hours.

So, yeah, if you’d asked me in the summer, I’d have been in favour of the pay raise.

But then in October, they voted against a Living Wage Policy for city workers.

So today I’m like, screw ‘em.

Now, to use a politician catch-phrase, “let me be very clear”: Council was not voting on whether or not to give themselves a raise at their Nov. 26 meeting.

There were instead two main points of contention arising from a council remuneration report. First, administration was recommending that they put together a Salary Review Commission to examine council’s pay structure.

If that commission determined that councillors were being underpaid considering the type of work they do, then maybe we’d see a recommendation for a council pay boost. But that wouldn’t come until sometime during the next council’s tenure.

It’s also possible that this commission could come back with a radical recommendation such as that council positions should be full-time. (Again, by the book, councillors are only supposed to be working part time though that’s rarely the case in practice.)

If this were the recommendation, it’s likely that the number of wards could be reduced. This is how things have worked in other municipalities when they’ve shifted from part- to full-time councillors. Council pay, however, would have to be increased so that they would be compensated fairly for the extra time expected of them.

This shift from part- to full-time is, in fact, something we’ve advocated for in the pages of Prairie Dog. More than once.

But  since council couldn’t be bothered to enshrine a fair, living wage for their lowest-paid employees in October, I find I’m less concerned about what they consider fair compensation for their own work.

The second item in the remuneration report was to top-up council salaries starting next year to offset changes to the tax code. Starting in 2019, the federal government is removing an exemption that allowed mayors and councillors to claim a third of their salary as a non-taxable benefit. When this change goes through, the mayor’s net monthly compensation will drop $632.82. A councillor’s net monthly pay will drop between $163 and $139. These are not insubstantial hits to the pocketbook.

According to Councillor Bob Hawkins, having the city top up this reduction in income didn’t amount to a pay increase but rather was just maintaining the status quo for this and future councils.

“This does not upset the reasonable expectation of the citizens of Regina,” said Hawkins.

Mayor Michael Fougere’s comments suggested he saw this as yet another example of a higher level of government stepping on the toes of Canadian municipalities.

“This is wholly brought on by the federal government who didn’t consult with any municipality in Canada or the [Federation of Canadian Municipalities] or [Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association]. And repeated letters and calls to the minister of finance and to minister Goodale were not answered,” Fougere said.

Of course, this tax code change for municipal officers looks similar to other tax reforms coming from the federal government — such as the equally popular changes to how the tax code approached income sprinkling, passive income and capital gains. These are all initiatives that are ostensibly to shore-up federal revenue and increase tax fairness.

And it is interesting to juxtapose council’s response to the closure of this exemption — an exemption which I, for example, don’t get to claim… so, you know… fairness — to how council responds when organizations or groups come in seeking mercy after they’ve been hit with a dramatic property tax increase.

Typically, it doesn’t go well for those seeking tax relief.

Sure, if you’re a curling rink facing massive maintenance bills, council will suspend your taxes while you get your business affairs in order. But if you’re a non-profit daycare facing a huge tax increase because you’ve been reassessed as a commercial property all of a sudden? Well, good luck with that. The city has to supply you with water and roads just like everybody else and it wouldn’t be fair to cut you some slack.

Pretty handy when you can vote yourself some relief from a tax change.

Now, I’ll be honest, in the grand scheme of things, I actually think council made the right call on both these items. It is time to re-examine how councillors get paid and it’s probably time to make “Regina city councillor” a full-time gig. And I also think that for the long-term health of council, spackling over that tax policy change wouldn’t hurt. It’s not a great idea to have councillors paid so little and working so hard that only retirees, the independently wealthy, business owners and professionals with flexible schedules can take on the job. That dramatically limits the type of people who will be representing us at the municipal level.

But the optics of these votes are all off. Dismissing a Living Wage Policy or the tax woes of non-profits and then talking about “fairness” when sorting out your own salary just doesn’t look good. It opens council up to criticism from disgruntled cranks (like me).

And that makes their job even harder.

The Tweetstorm Cometh

Speaking of optics, the city budget double feature is coming to council Dec. 10 and 11. You’re looking at a proposed 4.7% property tax increase. That includes one per cent for the residential road renewal program, 0.45% to pay for the Mosaic Stadium and a 1.9% increase for the Regina Police Service. Considering how tight revenue continues to be for the city, keeping the bump to under five per cent looks like something of a triumph. I will live-tweet the budget meetings from my city hall twitter feed, @PDCityHall. Tune in at 5:30 p.m. There will be a couple of good jokes! Or at least sarcastic quips.

What Does Your Councillor Make?

City council salaries are pegged to provincial minister salaries. Regina’s mayor, whose position is considered full-time, earns 77.3% of a provincial cabinet minister’s salary. City councillors, who are considered to have part-time positions, earn 33.3% of what the mayor makes. In practice, this means that in 2019, Mayor Fougere will make $112,202 while a councillor will earn $37,400.