It was an unjustifiable move under any circumstance, but regional councillors looking to give themselves the parting gift of lifetime benefits also took the cake for brazen disregard of the public.
The attempt to extend current benefits – life insurance, healthcare coverage, dental and out of province expenses – for life to outgoing councillors was wrong in tone, timing and transparency.
The effort is likely to be reversed, but the true colours of some of them have already been exposed.
While serving on regional council, elected officials are extended benefits paid for entirely by taxpayers to the tune of $2,400 per year for a single person to $6,720 for a family plan. As with employees, they have the option of continuing the plan after leaving council, though at their own expense.
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The paid-for benefits are a perquisite that already outstrips what many private-sector workers enjoy. Many have no benefits at all, and most of those with workplace plans pay part of the premiums themselves, as employer contributions can be as little as 25 per cent.
The plan would be available to any councillor having served at least one four-year term at 55 years of age.
In a late addition to a November 8 meeting agenda, the idea of extending those taxpayer-funded benefits for life was quickly embraced by the majority of councillors. The vote was 9-7, and two of those who voted for it have since changed their minds. It shouldn’t be lost on the public that the biggest push came from council members who aren’t returning to the next session.
That the move was made without even an attempt at transparency was an immediate red flag. Typically, councillors angling for a pay raise, for instance, go through a public process with a citizen-led committee that provides at least the veneer of accountability. Moreover, the increases are usually applied to the next term of council, giving the public a chance to literally vote on the matter: excessive raises could be overturned by electing someone else to occupy the chair.
That format means that current councillors aren’t necessarily going to benefit from the changes, as they may not seek re-election or may not win during the next trip to the polls.
With the sudden generosity after October’s election and before the end of term, councillors were giving themselves a nice sendoff. That was particularly true of those who won’t be returning in the next session. Not surprisingly, they were among the most vocal in support of the idea.
Last week’s meeting was also eye-opening in its tone, as supporters of ongoing support from taxpayers painted themselves as underappreciated, overworked and underpaid. Entitlement is the word that comes to mind. It’s a word that does not suggest public service and sacrifice for the general good. Rather, it evokes images of royalty and privilege, people who seem to feel they’re owed something by everybody else.
In real terms, the money paid to councillors is a small portion of the overall budget. Nor are they massively overpaid for what they do. The money they receive is essentially an honourarium. Theirs is not a job per se – it is supposed to be a public calling for which they receive a stipend. 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 some councillors were angling for more from the public at a time when the region is floating trial balloons about double-digit tax increases due to inflation makes the timing even worse.
At a time when regional council needs to be pushing for internal spending cuts to keep tax increases minimal, councillors looking out for their own interests lose credibility. There’s no moral high ground at the trough.