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Councillors have an easy choice over pay

As predicted, a consultant hired to study council pay levels in Woolwich is recommending huge increases. Forty-seven per cent for councillors, and 25 per cent for the mayor.

As was the case with the consultants who reported on staff wages, the suggested increases are 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.

This new study compared compensation levels in Woolwich to 12 similar municipalities in southwestern Ontario. As with the staff wages, the suggested increases attempt to put the township at average median level, though there’s no explanation for why that matters: by definition, half those surveyed would be at lower levels.

An increase in Woolwich would simply raise the average, making subsequence comparisons elsewhere that much higher: the next municipality undertaking this exercise will have to come up with more money … and so on.

While the dollar amounts are small – less than $6,000 for each of the five positions – there’s no getting around that percentage increase. Few, if any of the taxpayers can expect that kind of pay hike. The fact that such a hike is politically unsalable means the whole process was fruitless. In an election year, it’s highly unlikely councillors – those standing for re-election, at any rate – are going to vote themselves big raises just before residents go to the polls.

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.

The real danger is the advice that Woolwich should follow 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. That also applies to benefits and pensions, two other issues raised in this week’s compensation report.

The idea is addictive. But, like the infamous drug campaign, the solution is to just say no.

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  1. Here, here! Wages should be tied to CPI and private sector wage increases with similar types of work. I think this is why the 2.5% increase last time around was palatable. I expect a continuation of the 2.5% to be the maximum implemented.

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