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Restraint the only option in pay study

Woolwich council’s decision to hire a consultant to study the pay levels of our elected officials does not bode well for taxpayers.

“We might find that we’re overpaid and should be getting less money,” suggested Coun. Murray Martin during the debate Tuesday night, but that’s something of a pipedream. No consultant looking to stay in business is going to tell a customer to take less money.

If the process works anything like the consultants who reported on staff wages, the increases will be well above inflation, well above what’s warranted and well above the increase in what most residents have received and can expect to receive for the foreseeable future. And that doesn’t even cover the lamentable increase in staff numbers.

The last time council pay was discussed, prior to the 2006 election, a committee of volunteers did the work, opting for a 2.5-per-cent annual increase for the term of council. Generous, especially in light of the economic meltdown that began in 2008.

Given the still precarious economy – employment numbers have not been robust; good jobs even scarcer – the next batch of Woolwich councillors will be overseeing cuts and other austerity measures. Wage rollbacks won’t be possible until the ill-considered contract settlements play out, but freezes and staff reductions are not just options to be considered, they’ll be essential in taming the budget while holding the line on out-of-control property taxes.

In that light, council pay will have to reflect reality.

In real terms, the money paid to councillors is a small portion of the overall budget. Nor are they overpaid for what they do. Still, they have to lead by example, and that will mean freezes or very modest increases in line with what we’ve seen in the private sector. That makes spending $5,000 on a study a waste of resources: a political decision will be made in the end, and the only option is restraint.

Whatever figure the consultants come up with will be moot. Moreover, there’s a danger council would be advised to join the disturbing trend toward automatic annual increases, sometimes tied to increases negotiated with municipal staffers.

Automatic increases may be more comfortable for politicians – most squirm even just a little in discussing their own compensation – but they do nothing to preserve openness and accountability in what is surely the most conflict-ridden part of a councillor’s duties. Tying increases to what the municipality pays its employees smacks of conflict: it’s council’s role to minimize expenses in contract negotiations, yet the bigger the staff increase, the larger their own gains when the two rates are tied together.

As for councillors’ pay, the money they receive is an honourarium. Theirs is not a job – it is supposed to be a public calling for which they receive a small stipend. In general, remuneration is dealt with every four years: as the current council prepares to exit, members decide on a fair increase for those who will serve in the next term of office. This gives residents a chance to express their opinion of the raise when they go to the ballot box.

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