While some people are up in arm over the increase in wages being paid to the mayor and town council, Mayor Jeff Genung believes they’re missing the real story.
In the town’s proposed 2019 budget, the cost to residents for its council has climbed at a seemingly alarming rate. The bulk of that 15.3 per cent increase is the result of a change in the federal government taxation rules that will see the one-third tax exemption for elected officials eliminated on January 1, 2019. In essence, the increase being paid to council will result in a zero net increase in the amount the mayor and councillors are compensated.
“What people are not talking about is this is the federal government making a change to municipal elected officials salaries that the federal government will end up taking millions from and passing that on to taxpayers,” says Genung. “That’s the real story in my view.”
“It's happening in every municipality in Canada, not just Cochrane.”
The taxation changes were announced nearly two years ago and take effect in less than a month. It impacts all provincial and territorial legislatures, municipal councillors as well as elected officials of municipal utility boards, commissions, corporations and school boards. Specific employment expenses will remain non-taxable.
Groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation praise the change a huge step towards transparency in compensation paid to elected officials. The change was made for federal MP pay in 2000, the City of Calgary in 2006 and for the Alberta Legislature in 2012.
The proposed budget sets the mayor’s remuneration at $99,600 and councillors at $33,600. They also receive benefits and have expense accounts for cell phones, travel, miscellaneous supplies and attendance at out-of-town conferences, workshops and educational sessions.
Genung says he realizes council remuneration is a sensitive issue at the best of times but the timing of this one is bad in light of increasing municipal taxes and the economic downturn.
“If the last council had done this already, had they been a little proactive, we wouldn’t be finding ourselves in this position. The timing of it is what has people upset.”
“But when if there ever a good time for an elected official to raise their own salaries?”
He says his compensation is fair but believes town councillors are underpaid compared to surrounding municipalities. In a quick calculation, he says they roughly make $17.90 per hour based upon a 30 hour work week.
“The councillor’s salary in my view is pathetically low. They are paid, what, $28,000 to be an elected part-time elected official that votes on a $73 million budget, are open to the public at all times, and are doing it on the shoulders of their regular jobs. It’s not an easy position and we, as a community and as a society, need to see value when people want to step forward for a position like that and pay them fairly.”
Jaylene Knight, manager of legislative services, says there will be an extensive review of the council remuneration policy done earlier in 2019 because they are finding additional gaps that need to be closed and/or reviewed. It will come before council for their consideration as to how to address council remuneration moving forward.
The current town policy sees a public committee selected halfway through the term of a sitting council to make recommendations that, if passed, normally impact the next elected council.
Genung says several communities are now taking the question of remuneration out of the hands of an appointed committee and instead have the town administration prepare a report and make recommendations.
Other communities also have a per diem pay structure for town councillors for serving on committees. That doesn’t exist here so whether a town councillor is serving on one committee or three they receive the same pay.
“Most people don’t understand the amount of committee work on the side is basically done on a voluntary basis by councillors.”
Facebook Pages Attack Genung
The backlash on the wage increases has helped to foster two anti-Genung Facebook pages.
Hiding behind the anonymity of social media, “Jeff Genung Must Go” and “Fire Jeff Genung” Facebook pages both surfaced the last week and both take issue with his wages.
In addition “Jeff Genung Must Go” has delved into the bi-weekly black (trash) bin collection, traffic and growth issues.
Oddly enough, the three issues raised parallel the views of town councillor Morgan Nagel, who has been on the losing side of wage increases and budgetary restraint and while no final decision has been reached strongly believes in retaining weekly black bin collection.
Nagel says he’d swear on a stack of Bibles that he’s in no way involved, nor does he approve of the approach taken.
“It’s one thing to criticize policies and decisions you disagree with, it’s another to attack someone so personally anonymously. It’s not really a good direction for politics to be heading.”
He would prefer people to openly and publicly put together an intelligent position on an issue.
“I’ve never engaged in anonymous attacks on my colleagues and I never will. If I have a problem with somebody I will do so respectfully, publicly; I’ll own my own opinions. But to actually go out and undermine my colleagues anonymously on an attack page, I would never do that.”
Genung says he expected there would be some trying times during his tenure but nonetheless is disappointed the attack is being done in such a manner.
“I would rather somebody actually have a conversation with me and listen to my voice and we can agree to disagree or whatever. But I don’t know who it is, where it came from, it’s people hiding behind a keyboard.”
Perhaps that’s the same stance residents are taking. Neither page has been particularly well viewed, nor have they gathered many likes.
During budget deliberations, both Nagel and Patrick Wilson were opposed to increasing wages.