COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — March 19, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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As I write this, it looks like our city taxes will be going up 4.5 per cent this year. That’s well above the inflation rate for Saskatchewan and well above the increase in income for many people. I don’t know about you, but my wages sure haven’t gone up 4.5 per cent for the year -- which means I have to dig a little deeper to pay for city services.

Looking at the category budgets in the document on the city website, here are the increases expressed as rounded percentages:

• Fire Department -- an increase of seven per cent; however, a large part of this is a movement of budget items from general to fire specifically.

• Police -- an increase of about two per cent, which is exceptionally low for a police budget. Keep in mind that policing costs are about one third of the total city budget, so that should bring down the overall increase.

• Planning and Development -- a whopping 28 per cent increase here; however, a large part is the reality of having a director in place for a full year this year.

• Corporate Services -- four per cent more to look after human resource management, communications and other services.

• Financial Services -- about 1.5 per cent more to look after the accounting.

• Community Services -- less than one per cent more to look after parks, recreation facilities, and boulevards.

• Public Works -- an increase of six per cent for roadways, infrastructure and associated operations. All things we need, but don’t forget that those ever-increasing water bills are also paying a big chunk of the cost of water mains, sewers and related repairs and replacements.

• External Agencies -- this category includes the library, arts facilities, museums and special needs transportation, among other things. According to city documents posted on the website this weekend, the net effect here was a very small cut.

Where is the biggest percentage increase? Setting aside those departments where items are moved to a different spreadsheet, or a previously vacant management spot is now filled, there is one area that sticks out: city council.

The category for city council is up by 6.5 per cent for this year. That includes remuneration (salary) for the mayor and councillors, salary for a support person, and the expenses for the mayor and councillors. That’s a pretty big hike.

Now, before you pick up the phone to call your councillor and complain, let me predict what he or she will say. It’s not their fault. The pay of council is set as a portion of what a cabinet minister makes, so it’s out of their control. They have no choice but to go along. (What that really means is you are also paying provincial cabinet minister 6.5 per cent more -- but that’s another discussion).

Yes, council remuneration is set according to an outside standard. There are good reasons for doing this, such as taking the decision to give a raise out of the hands of those who will benefit; however, it doesn’t mean the increase has to be taken. Apparently, Coun. Martin Ring had suggested at a meeting before the budget session last week that council should set an example by scaling back its own cost. That idea didn’t make it to the budget meeting, judging by media reports.

So a 6.5 per cent raise for councillors and the mayor. And a car allowance. And, now, a phone allowance of $480 a year for council members and $960 per year for the mayor. It costs money to serve the people, according to the mayor.

Yes, it does cost money to be on council or to be mayor. I think few people would ever take on public office, at least on a local level, as a way to get rich. However, that cost is already figured into the equation.

As a member of a municipal council or school board, you are entitled to a municipal officers’ allowance when you file your income tax. This makes one third of your pay for serving the public tax free. So with the mayor’s salary now set at about $88,000, with one third tax free, it’s the equivalent of about $95,300 a year. Plus a car allowance. Plus a phone allowance.

I don’t have an issue with the regular remuneration paid to city councillors. I know how demanding that job can be, and the pay is little enough for the many phone calls and the stress taken on. I think $95,000 in real terms for mayor is a bit much. It doesn’t need to be a full-time job, especially if you have a competent city manager in place, which I believe we do. What I really have a problem with is the expense allowances, especially adding in a new one this year when the tax increase is already high. You are being compensated by the Government of Canada via a tax break for your expenses; you shouldn’t expect to be repaid twice.

At the very least, if we’re collectively paying the cellphone bills for council, we should have the phone numbers. It’s kind of like paying for your kids to have a phone: sure, you know it’ll be used to play games and surf the net, but it should also be there when you need to get a hold of them and you darn well know that phone number. You should have your councillor’s cellphone number, too. Currently, only one councillor has his cellphone number posted on the city website, and that’s in lieu of a home number.

So the next time you’re talking to your councillor, or the mayor, ask for his cellphone number. Ask him to justify a 6.5 per cent increase for council expenses, and a 4.5  per cent increase in taxes overall. And tell him just how much -- or how little -- your income went up this year.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com.

Organizations: Fire Department, Corporate Services, Financial Services Community Services Public Works Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada

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