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Time for a reality ‘cheque’

by Patrick Raftis

Residents of Wellington County should, apparently, be embarrassed by the miserly fashion in which we compensate our local politicians.

The level of salary provided to municipal councillors throughout the region has been variously described as “ridiculous” and mere “coffee money,” while the reimbursement system for expenses so meagre as to leave some council members “out of pocket on a regular basis.”

Granted, I’m cherry picking quotes here, but those descriptions all come from elected members of council from across the county in the past nine months.

Municipal politicians have been habitually dismissive of their level of compensation, but the latest pleas of privation have been inspired by the federal government’s decision to end, as of 2019, a long-standing tax break allowing council members to declare one third of their salaries tax free as “expenses incurred in the discharge of the member’s duties.” (Never mind, I guess, that they are all duly compensated for legitimate, receipted expenses.)

At a meeting last July, Erin Mayor Alan Alls stated during a discussion on the end of the exemption, “Quite frankly, $15,000 a year for the kind of work that you gentlemen put in is not at all reasonable – actually ridiculous.”

Erin council for their part responded to the pending loss of the tax break by raising council salaries by $4,722 for the mayor and $2,833 for councillors, implementing a policy of annual increases of $600 per year for the mayor and $400 a year for each councillor, and instituting the same benefit package for council as the town’s staff.

In an interview last March, Wellington County Warden Dennis Lever, the mayor of Puslinch, said one example of expenses covered by the “tax-free allowance” could be travel.

“In Puslinch, people driving ... don’t get mileage, unless you go out of the municipality,” he explained. “I know I’m out of pocket on a regular basis.”

Perhaps, but the warden also draws a salary of just under $90,000 from the county and almost $23,000 from Puslinch. The Puslinch salary alone would be equal to someone earning $12.63 cents per hour and putting in a 35-hour work week.  Combine the two salaries and divide by a typical work week and the rate becomes slightly more than $60 an hour. While the warden will come closer than any other politician in the county to working full time, a 35-hour week on a regular basis is probably a stretch. He’s also reimbursed for any other type of realistic expense, so he’s probably well ahead of the game even if he pays for the occasional tank of gas.

The “coffee money” comment came from Mapleton Township councillor Michael Martin at the Dec. 12 meeting, again during discussion on the loss of the tax break.

Martin stated “this is certainly coffee money,” in reference to a Mapleton councillor’s annual salary of $13,440.

To be clear, Martin was making a very valid point that the size of the stipend provided council members makes it difficult for anyone working for a living to make the decision to commit the necessary time. This is why most councils are made up almost entirely of retirees or business owners with the necessary flexibility, and financial security, in their work situation. That doesn’t exactly promote diversity of opinion in local government.

Martin is a paramedic and he would no doubt lose money if compelled to miss a shift for a council function. But does that mean the $13,440 is coffee money? (That’s around 7,680 mediums - 21 per day, 365 days a year - at Tim Hortons, if you’re counting).

First of all, we need to remember these jobs, with the possible exception of some mayors, are undeniably part-time positions.

Mapleton councillors do put in a lot of hours by comparison to some councils, owing largely to their minimalist committee structure. They fairly often meet for whole- or half-day sessions in addition to regular meetings. Of late, regular meetings run between two and three hours, so let’s call it five hours total for two meetings monthly. If they do two full-day sessions every month (not likely, but possible), that’s 16 more hours. Add another four hours for committee meetings, eight hours for reading agenda packages and a couple more for ribbon cuttings, etc. That would get you to 35 hours for the month in return for $1,120 in salary. That’s $32 per hour, a significantly better rate than most part-time work provides.

A Wellington County councillor, other than the warden, gets a flat salary of $32,868. County council meetings run about two hours, but in the world of local politics this is considered a “half-day” meeting. So there was nine of those in 2017.

County councillors are on at least two committees and/or boards - some are on three. Assuming three, and a two-hour meeting each month for each, and we’re at one eight-hour day. Let’s add another day for some drive time (since it’s a big county), some follow up discussion, etc. Let’s do a half-day for ceremonial functions and another full day for reading (the November county agenda package was 586 pages, but I would wager most councillors only deep dive on areas of specific responsibility).

By my count that’s 28 hours a month, for nine months a year, at (wait for it) $130 an hour.

Some councillors argue, although I’ve never heard it from the Mapleton group, that there are many phone calls and impromptu meetings with taxpayers in grocery stores, restaurants and “on the street” that constitute unrecognized hours of work.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because a lot of jobs come with the same strings attached, maybe even yours.

Reporters for example, sometimes get calls at home to advise about upcoming events or possible stories and casual encounters with readers regularly turn into conversations one could comfortably call work-related. A tax break for members of the fourth estate? Probably not a winning campaign platform.

The point is not to devalue municipal councillors who are, by and large, a responsible, dedicated and generally competent group deserving of decent, but not necessarily exorbitant, compensation. Perhaps it’s even fair to argue some of that should come via a federal tax break, rather than local tax dollars.

However, a reality check would seem to be in order for any who feel hard done-by under the current pay structure.

 

December 22, 2017

 
 

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