• Time to Fix Council Pay (Permanently)

    It happens almost every term of council in London, the issue comes up of how much council is paid and whether or not the position should be “full-time” or “part-time” (currently councillors are considered part-time). It always brings a cry of (ignorant) protest from some quarters that “greedy politicians” are feeding at the trough again, and instead of making a tough (and awkward) decision, councillors kick the proverbial can down the road with some version of “make it an election issue” or “let next council decide”.

    So let’s cut through the crap shall we?

    FACT: It is about how we compensate future councils (regardless of how you feel about current or past council performance).
    FACT: We pay our councillors crap for what is a very important job.
    FACT: The poor pay is a barrier to attracting better candidates to the job.

    What do we pay city councillors? There is a “tax free” portion, which after you do all the math, makes it about the equivalent of $37,000, but “equivalent” is not the same as actual take home pay. These are people who—if they do the job well—put in anywhere from 40-60hrs a week minimum.

    And we ask them to do that as “part-time” members of City Council. Only the Mayor is paid to be “full-time”. So, these folks either have to hold down a second job to make ends meet, or be able to depend on a second income in their household from a partner to help make ends meet (creating an extra barrier for single people to run for council).

    Those who tell you part-time councillors are a good thing because it makes them keep one foot in the community are shovelling more crap onto the pile. A good council member spends as much time in the community as they can, a second job is not time in the community, it is time at work elsewhere.

    A second job means:

      a) councillors aren’t fully focused on the business of the city
      b) councillors are open to all kinds of conflict of interest situations based on the nature of their other job
      c) the door is closed to anyone who might want to run for council and serve the community but doesn’t have an employer that will accommodate the need for flexible hours and time away to attend to council business.

    We expect them to attend meetings on evenings and weekends so it is convenient for public participation. Community groups and organizations constantly want face time with them, or want them to speak at events. They are given 500-600 page reports to read on almost a weekly basis, do any extra fact gathering they may need to do, and both listen to constituent concerns and questions, and actively solicit that feedback to make decisions. BIG DECISIONS. The Corporation of the City of London is a BILLION+ dollar a year entity.

    Then on top of all of that, they’re suppose to find time for family, friends, or self care? Sorry, but they are only human beings with so many hours in the day.

    You won’t find many corporations that size where the executive board is compensated so poorly. And there is irony in the reality that many of those who cry “greedy politician” when this issue comes up are the same people who say “government needs to be run more like a business”.

    Then, we want to complain that council isn’t doing it’s homework or isn’t listening enough before making decisions. People make the argument that staff is there to run the day to day business of the city, but then complain staff are making the decisions instead of council.

    We can’t have it both ways.

    When you make an important purchase in your personal life, you have to balance the competing factors of quality and cost. Are you going to buy a quality car that will last you years with little trouble, or a cheap used car that breaks down every other month? Are you going to buy a good quality bed to sleep on, or something cheap that you throw out in a year because the coils are shot and the mattress top is worn out already?

    Compensating our council is no different. We don’t have to offer “golden handshake” compensation packages that makes someone “set for life” if they are elected. But we do have to offer a competitive enough compensation that people who might run and be very good council members have incentive enough to consider it a viable option without having to hold down another job.

    The reality is London councillors are the lowest paid of any of the 17 comparable Canadian municipal councils. And, it could be quite fairly argued, we get what we pay for. That isn’t a comment directed solely at the current council, but of councils past too, at least in the 20 years I’ve been in London. Sure, there has been some stand out individual council members, but councils on the whole, not so great.

    So now we have the recommendations of the most recent task force looking into council pay, and surprise, once again we have a recommendation to increase council pay.

    Here’s the catch, the task force recommendations are clear, easy to understand and makes sense.

    • Eliminate 1/3rd tax free exemption on council pay
    • Set council paid at the median income of a full-time employed Londoner (currently $48,000)
    • It would come into effect for the council we elect in 2018, not the current council, so council will not be voting on a raise for itself, but the pay of who the public “hires” in the next election.

    In other words, treat and pay council the same way as the average Londoner is treated. It is hardly a hefty payday. The total cost to London’s budget would be roughly $672,000. That’s a modest increase to the roughly $518,000 currently devoted to paying council. It’s a tiny fraction of the city’s billion dollar annual budget, and a small price to pay to attract a better quality council for the future.

    For what it’s worth, if I were on council today, I would vote for this. But, I’d do so insisting on two important caveats.

    1) Setting it at the median means that’s where it stays. Every 4 years the City Clerk’s office will review the median income for Londoners and adjust council pay accordingly at the start of each new term of council. If London’s median income goes up (say because council , so does the pay, but if that number goes down, so does the pay. That takes any future salary changes out of the hands of the politicians and builds in a measure of accountability. The city does well, the councillors do well. The city doesn’t do so well, the councillors share the pain.

    2) I’d also be moving to reduce the “councillor expense budget” of $15,000 a year that they each have by $5000, lowering it to $10,000. Let council absorb about half the cost of the wage hike by lowering discretionary expense spending. After all, the councillor speaking out against giving council a raise in the London Free Press, spent $9495 of that budget on a contract assistant in 2016. It is easy to say a raise isn’t necessary I suppose if you’re getting someone else to do the work. If we’re going to pay them better, then they don’t need as much available to contract out to other people the work we elected them to do!

    In other words, if council through actions or policy, are able to attract a major new employer that creates several hundred new full-time, good paying jobs that drives up Londoners median incomes, council would get a raise at the next adjustment period. But, if we lose jobs and the median income drops, council pay decreases. I’m betting we’d see a lot less “warm & fuzzy” feel good conferences and studies, and a whole lot more focus on improving the quality of life and economic well being of the community.

    Doing this would lay this issue to rest. No more task force studies. No more politicians voting on their own pay. Set in the middle and adjust it based on how Londoners themselves fair under council’s leadership or lack thereof. We attract those who want to do the job, not to get wealthy, but to improve the city, while compensating them with a reasonable living wage. That’s fair.

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