Across Ontario, municipalities are approving budgets. It’s always a controversial time: my top priorities for spending might be your lowest priorities, and there’s always pressure to keep taxes low (yes, I say KEEP taxes low, because whatever you’ve heard our taxes are relatively quite low). Any spending at all is a travesty, according to some. Before budgeting started I read the book The Fight to Save the Town, about communities in the US whose municipal governments have gone bankrupt or nearly ceased to exist, in some cases because the residents voted for lower taxes until there were nearly none at all. (In other cases it was because municipalities cut taxes for developers while simultaneously spending big on capital infrastructure to facilitate development, resulting in flashy downtowns that carry big debt and earn no revenue.) Lots of good lessons there, and the book is available in the library if you’re interested.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to make budget decisions about whether or not we’re going to cut services. Brighton’s Committee of the Whole has recommended that Council pass the budget with just over a 7% tax increase, a little above the rate of inflation at this point. (Note that the inflation rate I’ve linked you to here is based on the Consumer Price Index, which focuses on consumer goods; the increase to capital costs, for things like vehicles and buildings and paving projects, is much higher. It’s nearly miraculous that our tax increase is so low, given how expensive several important purchases are right now.) I’m confident, and I think my fellow Councillors agree, that the budget is a modest attempt to maintain our current level of services, with a little extra to help us plan for the future; it’s quite conservative. Even so, I expect that some residents will see a 7% tax increase as a sign that we’re spending out of control. We will have a public meeting to hear your feedback on the proposed budget before it passes, so we have a chance to talk that through, and hopefully we can move forward together as a community with a shared understanding of what is needed and desired out of this budget.
But one thing that is a guaranteed hard sell to residents is any increase to Council’s salaries. We didn’t even look at that this year, but Cobourg did, and I’d like to unpack the issue.
Voting For Your Own Raise?
Not many people are in a position to determine their own pay, except for politicians, who can’t avoid it. At every level of government, a politician’s salary is part of the budget that those politicians have to approve. Especially given that some people have a negative opinion of politicians in general, and that many people’s feelings about any given politician are influenced by partisan positions, and that many politicians make more money than most other people already, no pay raise for politicians will ever sit well with most people. It just looks greedy.
For this reason, politicians often refuse to even look at the issue. They don’t want the bad press. This happens on other issues, too. Consider the state of the Prime Minister’s residence: no PM wanted to be the one to order the necessary multi-million dollar renovations the home needed, and now it has decayed to the point that it’s nearly unlivable. The Prime Minister’s Residence has black mold and necessary structural repairs, and it would be cheaper at this point to tear the historic residence down than to fix it. Even so, ordering repairs led to months of bad press for Prime Minister Trudeau, who doesn’t even live there because of its state. Likewise, I recently visited a friend in Peterborough and remarked to him that I had just traveled down one of the worst maintained streets I’d ever seen; he laughed, and said “well, the Mayor lives there.” I understood: that street will probably be the lowest priority for maintenance, so that nobody can complain that the Mayor gets preferential treatment.
By neglecting important matters because of the optics of the issue, we end up with bigger costs — and bigger cost corrections — in the long term. When a council salary increase finally cannot be avoided any longer, it has to increase a lot to catch up from years of neglect. The proposal for Cobourg’s pay increase included a 75% increase for Councillors, a 65% increase for the Deputy Mayor, and a 43% increase for the Mayor. Those increases look like huge amounts, but Cobourg councillors are currently only making just under $26,000 for what often amounts to a full-time job with significant required training, constantly being on-call with residents, growing demand for expertise, and a lot of wisdom. Cobourg’s Mayor, who currently makes just over $45,000, also has to fulfill his role on County Council, complete additional duties as head of Cobourg Council, and act as the public face and chief liaison of the municipality — all for a wage that’s middling at best in the organization. MPPs and MPs have broader responsibilities still, and many more constituents, justifying a higher salary; but MPPs make over $140k/year, as of last year, after 14 years of no raises. And despite those high salaries, an MPP just resigned because she couldn’t afford the child care she needed to do her job properly. That’s a bigger systemic failure related to the lack of affordable childcare and other supports for working parents, but it still makes a case for higher wages.
The Case for Higher Wages for Politicians
Cobourg Council ended up voting down the pay increase, but it’s worth noting that they didn’t bring it up in the first place; a resident brought a delegation to Council proposing the pay increase. It’s also worth noting, at least by the comments I’ve seen on Cobourg councillors’ social media pages, that many residents support the pay increases (even if they don’t want them right now). So what’s the case for higher pay for politicians?
The story above about an MPP resigning from her six-figure job because she couldn’t afford the living and childcare costs required of her is significant: it tells parents, and particularly mothers, that they can’t afford to be in politics.
So who can afford it? Cobourg Mayor Lucas Cleveland pointed out, “This is not because I’m trying to line my pockets. I have a career in the oil and gas industry if I want. All of the councillors are successful business people. If it was a money thing, no one would be on council for money, no one is the mayor for money, folks.”
When we look at who makes up the majority of municipal councils, it’s an “old boys club”: in 2014, 75% of Ontario councillors were men (83% of mayors were men), and the median age on council was 60. Less than 10% of councillors were under 40. Only 2% of surveyed councillors self-identified as a visible minority (compared to 26% of the general population at that time). There are a lot of barriers to people who might otherwise consider running for public office, but money can help solve a lot of them, and a lack of money is an insurmountable barrier for many. If we want to have councillors who represent the diversity of our communities, instead of being predominantly older men (and folks who have oil and gas jobs if they want them!), we need to make sure that people can afford the investment of time it takes to do the job.
In one of our first training sessions, we were advised not to let Council take over our lives. It can easily become a full-time and even an over-time job. Council not only has 1-2 meetings per week for Council or the Committee of the Whole or Council Planning, but we also have training, committees, community events, resident phone calls and emails and coffee meetings, emergency response (as when we all took shifts staffing the warming centre set up during the Christmas storm), and more. All of that just to keep up the current level of services, too; the time we spend thinking about how to make the community better, going to conferences, connecting with colleagues from other municipalities, or just thinking and planning…that’s all extra, and it’s hard to turn off. There’s so much good that we could do, it’s hard to hold back just because of little things like time and money.
Working as a REALTOR®, I can sometimes make a decent amount of money in a short time. That gives me the flexibility to spend large amounts of time on other things when I’m between clients. But I’ve maintained a low level of clients, even before being elected, so that I can dedicate more time to community work; since being elected I have transferred my unpaid volunteering to low-paid council work, which has helped our household finances significantly, but it still isn’t sustainable forever. So as much as I would LOVE to spend all of my time on council work, at some point I’m going to have to focus on my business, and reduce my council work to just what’s required of me: those weekly meetings. I’m personally and emotionally dedicated to this role, but I can only dedicate as much time as my finances will allow.
If we want to get the most we can out of our councillors, we need to pay them accordingly. For the record, our salary is just under $18k, and we get paid $60 per meeting (as do residents on committees); $120 if the meeting is over 3 hours. The salary works out to just over minimum wage for a part-time job (around $17/hr for a 20-hour week), to be a leader of the community. It hasn’t been increased for several terms. On the latest edition of Consider This, Kimberly Leadbetter from the Kawartha-Pine Ridge District Health Unit points out that a livable wage for our region is over $19/hr for 40 hours a week. If someone tried to live on a councillor salary they would be living in deep poverty, on less than half a livable wage.
This isn’t a poor-me post. I’m very happy to be getting paid for this type of work at all, after about a decade of spending the same time on less effective volunteer efforts. And I’ve chosen to invest my time in council work rather than on expanding my business. But I want to be clear that when it comes to council work, our community gets a lot more than we pay for, but we’d get more still if we paid for it. I dream of being able to do this full-time, and fear the day I have to start saying no to important community work because I need to spend my time promoting my business just to make ends meet. I don’t expect to get a full-time salary for council work, but whether I’m on council or not, I’d like my councillors to be able to give their full attention to the job.
I unabashedly support pay equity for our employees. We’ve had a hard time retaining our talented staff here for the past number of years, and pay equity is a part of it; the KPMG report and the implementation plan that followed it has pointed to pay equity as a major consideration in improving our staff experience. When it comes to budgeting for employee pay, I support increasing it to industry standards, full stop. I’m not interested in balancing the budget on the backs of our staff.
Pay equity, or getting the right wage for your labour, has two principles behind it. First, fairness: we strive to ensure that we pay the same for our staff’s work as they could make doing the same work elsewhere. If the same work is valued more in Quinte West or Cobourg than it is in Brighton, we not only will lose staff to those municipalities, but it’s unfair to the ones who stay here. People shouldn’t have to make a financial sacrifice to work in our community. At the same time, the job is worth the same pay whether the worker is male, female, or nonbinary; gay or straight; white or Black or Brown; young or old. People should be paid according to industry standards for their labour, quality of work, and experience.
Second, we can’t forget that all labour should be dignified. Our employees’ work is valuable, often in many different ways, of which pay is only one. Treating our employees with dignity includes paying them a decent wage; paying them less than their work is worth, or requiring more of them than we’re willing to pay them for, makes a statement about how we value them. There’s a certain incongruity of upholding councillors as leaders of the community, while paying them a part-time minimum wage salary.
When it comes to council pay, there is no industry standard. Every community is different, in terms of how much they’re even able to pay. A rural municipality with fewer than 5,000 residents can’t afford to pay much in the way of salaries at all, while Toronto and Ottawa city councillors make six figures and devote themselves to the job full time. Obviously Brighton is on the lower end of the scale, and I’m fine with that. Cobourg’s Mayor made the point that Cobourg is growing quickly toward city status, and they should have council remuneration that reflects that; Brighton is not in that position, despite our rapid growth. So there’s no clear basis for comparison from one municipality to another, leaving the equity question more rooted in the question of what kind of remuneration we think this work is worth to us.
The bottom line in this debate is that, well, it’s complicated. People think politicians are being greedy when they vote themselves a raise; so no politician wants to make that vote, so it gets neglected; so politicians are often poorly paid, which means that only people who are independently wealthy can really afford to run for office; so councils are usually full of old rich men, and average folks feel unrepresented; and people feel that council isn’t even worth the low value we’ve placed on the role by awarding it such low wages.
I expect that, a few budgets from now, council wages will come up for debate. (We’re also likely at some point to see a budget line item related to updating our council chambers; they’re not quite as old as the Prime Minister’s residence, but I think they’re older than I am!) Whatever stance your councillors take when that debate comes up, please know that it isn’t a question of personal greed, or even self-interest; the strongest arguments in favour of raising council pay are about the people who aren’t on council yet, because they couldn’t afford the financial sacrifice it takes to serve the community this way. (That’s why, when politicians do vote for pay increases, they usually do it on their way out of office for the sake of the people who come after them.) I expect that, should it come up, we will talk about all of these factors, all under the pressure of public backlash. I’m glad to see Cobourg having this discussion now (and Port Hope quietly just increasing council pay), so that it doesn’t come as a shock when it inevitably happens in Brighton. Let’s start the discussion now, and make it a meaningful one, rather than an argument about accusations of greed.
My other hope is that by the time it comes up in a future budget, I will have shown the value of council well enough to earn a raise in the eyes of our residents. Until then, let me know what you think of the value of Council: do you think we’re worth our wages? Why or why not?
One thought on “Budgets and the Cost of Councillors”
In Alnwick Haldimand our Council raise is the same as the staff raise. We just passed the raise as a natural budget increase.
All of your points are excellent. Money and time makes rural municipal councils primarily retired people.