BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Setting an example

Solidarity with cash-strapped Vernonites is all the rage at city hall.

Solidarity with cash-strapped Vernonites is all the rage at city hall.

Mayor Rob Sawatzky has refused to accept a $2,800 pay hike as a way of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens during tough economic times. Not to be outdone, council has taken a year-long deferral on an increase in committee meeting pay from $137 to $320 for full-day sessions and $160 for meetings less than four hours long.

“It cuts down on costs. It’s less cost to the taxpayer,” said Coun. Bob Spiers of the decision.

That’s definitely the case but if council wants to sharpen pencils, why was there no discussion on scrapping committee meeting pay altogether?

A total of $22,335 was allotted in the 2011 budget for committee pay (the actual so far is $9,222 because the deadline to file claims hasn’t occurred yet).

To keep things in perspective, that $22,335 — which is being budgeted again in 2012 — would virtually cover the additional $27,000 being sought for pothole repairs.

When committee meeting pay was first initiated in 2009, it was justified as a way of recognizing the true workload facing officials.

“There is increasing demand from the public that they be involved in decision-making,” said Buffy Baumbrough, a then-councillor.

She also pointed out that most committee meetings are during the day when councillors are generally focused on their private careers.

“It is onerous and has had an impact,” she said.

There’s no question that the time commitment is substantial. Beyond just sitting at meetings, which can drag on for seemingly ever, there are the countless hours that go into reading agendas and background information.

Serving on council can be extremely challenging for anyone who runs their own business or is a working stiff for someone else. And of course there is the time away from family activities.

But the mayor already receives an annual salary of $63,466, one-third of which is tax-free, while each of the six councillors pockets a yearly wage of $20,473 (one-third tax-free).

The time of individual council members obviously is important and they shouldn’t be penalized financially for serving the public, but being elected is not supposed to be about the money.

It should be mentioned that most of the city’s committees also include residents of the community, many of them businesspeople who face the same time and financial constraints as councillors. The difference is the community members are volunteers and they don’t collect one dime for their contributions.

Last week, council put off a decision on a staff request for $7.9 million for capital works.

“There may be projects that we don’t agree with,” said Coun. Catherine Lord.

“We will go through it and see if these are priorities for council.”

While trying to tighten the belt is admirable, council appears unwilling to make any personal sacrifices except for deferring pay hikes for a year. That’s a far cry from many taxpayers who have had any hopes of a raise deferred year after year since the recession began in 2008.

The $22,335 in meeting pay isn’t going to make or break city coffers, but it would indicate to residents that elected officials truly understand their financial plight.

Of course, the City of Vernon isn’t in a unique situation.

In Coldstream, council members are paid to attend meetings they can only observe because they aren’t appointed to the committee.

Not only does this policy reveal little faith in the councillors named to the committees to report back to their colleagues, but it raises questions as to how tax dollars are spent.

But we shouldn’t protest too loudly.

After all, who wouldn’t want to receive a paycheque without actually being required to do something for it?

—Richard Rolke is the senior reporter for The Morning Star

richard@vernonmorningstar.com