OPINION: Pay municipal elected officials what they’re worth

In order to gain qualified candidates, elected officials should be paid appropriately.

Starting in 2019 elected officials will lose the tax exemption on their salaries and honorariums.

In an effort to deal with that, Mayor Rick Bonnett made a notice of motion April 24 (see page 2) to discuss the idea of an increase to councillors’ honorariums. On top of that he wants to create some sort of severance option in an effort to entice better-qualified candidates to the table.

This isn’t a bad idea, however, there’s some flaws in how he’s going about this.

Quite frankly, elected officials do not make enough money for the hours they put in to benefit their communities — for the most part anyways. Some have started to take vacation days to deal with budget discussions or other events. It’s a lot of work and at times the rewards can be small.

This change put forward by the federal government means councillors will end up paying taxes on money earned as they work for residents. It’s a mixed bag there with elected officials from smaller communities, who have other jobs, having to pay out more.

When one looks at the larger centres, however, this makes sense. Both mayors of Edmonton and Calgary make more than $200,000 each on a full time job. They should have to pay taxes, one reason why they received raises to cover the difference.

Another benefit, says Bonnett, by providing some sort of severance and increased salary to councillors means there’s a hope it’ll entice qualified candidates to the table. Again, this isn’t a bad idea but how council is going about this idea isn’t ideal. There’s also the risk of seeing people coming for a money grab.

There needs to be an arm’s-length committee to research this idea that will provide recommendations to council. We did have one such committee in recent years but its members were reluctant to give council an amount of what elected officials should get paid, opting instead to leave the final decision to council.

It’s not fair to council, however, to have it decide on an amount. I know I would have trouble voting against a motion that would see me make more money but that decision would be made easier with proper research and recommendations from a committee.

Despite these concerns, an appropriate payment for the time could really bring in better candidates. Sometimes you get what you pay for and if councillors aren’t being paid enough for the work, residents might see less than able people at the helm.

The days of “giving to the community” are over. Councillors have much to handle, including a rather complex Municipal Government Act, along with risks of personal liability. Add to that when it comes to taxes, ratepayers can be downright abusive when councillors make decisions they don’t like.

Where council needs to be careful is it needs to be doing its own self-evaluation.

Council itself hasn’t looked at how to be more efficient. That’s the first question managers ask employees when they say they are overworked; “What are you doing to manage your time?”

We have a weird committee system within this community where councillors take part in committees and now are supposed to be experts in their areas. It’s getting a little too much on the operational side of the equation and officials have at least one or two meetings a week. And sometimes more.

Ideally their hours would be less if they were in a situation where administration did the work, followed council’s direction and provided them with the appropriate information.

You pay the experts to do the work and you ensure they follow policy. This would certainly minimize the time councillors spent away from their families, and their main jobs, which is also their main source of income.

This hasn’t really been the standard operating procedure in Ponoka with turnover and systemic financial waste within the town, so one can understand council’s reluctance to let things go.

But there has to be a balance. Hire the right people, pay them what they’re worth and things should balance out. There’s not enough time in the world to provide governance while also getting involved in operations.

Council has to evaluate how it functions with respect to the town to determine if there’s a way to reduce its operating hours. They may just learn something about themselves in the process.

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