Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series the Citizen will be running. Over several weeks, the Citizen will take a deeper look at local government spending.
The Beggar’s Checklist is a 10-point rundown of suggestions for municipal governments to manage costs before relying on raising property taxes or seeking assistance from other levels of government.
It was introduced by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, an advocacy group promoting accountable government and lower taxes.
Salaries are frozen in 2014 for the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s upper echelon of employees but the board of directors is still pushing further to find ways to trim excess fat from them and bring them into line with the private sector.
According to the CVRD’s employee remuneration and expenses statement for the year 2012 – the most recent list available – the CVRD paid 43 people more than $75K per year, plus expenses, and of that list, 22 of them were paid more than $100K per year.
The salary total for all 43 people was $4.56 million with an extra $119K for expenses.
CVRD directors struck a committee in January, with Duncan Mayor Phil Kent as chair, to look specifically at the subject of these salaries.
Finding frames of reference for such an investigation is challenging, Kent said.
"Normally they’ve made comparisons with municipalities and regional bodies of similar size and service areas and employees. Not all the private sector shares their information. I think we also need to look at how we can connect these things to the general condition of the economy."
The committee was formed because municipal governments across Canada have been dealing with the challenge of "reflecting the expectation of society," Kent said.
He pointed out that the board must appear to be acting fairly.
"We need a clear policy from the board perspective on how these things are measured, benchmarked and adjusted over time." The CVRD board has made such adjustments, according to the Duncan mayor.
"At one time there was a great deal of competition for the kind of skill sets and the professionals that were available to do the work. There actually was a policy that the board would try to achieve the 75th percentile of the average of remuneration [for comparable positions].
"The board adjusted that later on as that market demand eased off. We were able to go back to the 50th percentile to be right at the median," Kent said.
"It’s important to be able to attract and keep quality, qualified staff. But it can’t be at any cost and it can’t be disconnected from the community and the society that you’re living in."
His group is going to complete a comprehensive look by the summer and bring back recommendations to the board before the next budget cycle begins.
CVRD board chair Rob Hutchins agreed that one of the drivers for forming Kent’s committee was a push from the public in general.
"I think its a growing awareness and concern about public sector wage or compensation packages and we made a commit to take a look at that," he said.
Bringing staff salaries into line with the private sector is "quite a complex topic," according to Bruce Fraser, regional area director for Shawnigan Lake, who has been vocal on the subject at the board table.
Fraser said that part of the problem is meeting concerns from taxpayers about the eventual bill for all these jobs.
"One of the ironies, of course, is that the regional district is probably the lowest tax bite of all the various tax bites. What we’re trying to do is put senior salaries in a reasonable relationship to the economy of their own community."
So, what is comparable in the private sector? Fraser said he saw challenges there because the skill requirements can be so different.
"Would they like us to compare the regional district to Walmart? Which corporation represents a comparable level of responsibility, effort and academic and experience preparation for the job? If we had a neat comparison, it would be a lot easier," he said.