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Salary freeze rejected during snarky council debate 

Councillors overworked and underpaid, say councillors.

click to enlarge At one point mayor Mike Savage told several elected representative "Don't get snarky, OK? Let's live with each other for a while." - THE COAST
  • At one point mayor Mike Savage told several elected representative "Don't get snarky, OK? Let's live with each other for a while."
  • The Coast

A new compensation system for HRM councillors and the mayor was viciously shot down at City Hall this week, but problems with the current salary formula remain.

A report asking to change HRM council's pay and base it off of the average salary for a full-time HRM resident was debated at a stumbling, confrontational meeting on Tuesday, with councillors at times attacking each other, public perception of their jobs and the very committee they asked to look into this issue over a year ago.

“This whole thing has been, in my opinion, and my opinion only, a flawed process,” said councillor Russell Walker. “To me, this report has a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

The report came from a specially created independent committee that spent most of the last year studying council’s pay structure. Along with proposed changes to pensions and creating severance pay for councillors, the report recommended altering the system used to calculate compensation by basing salaries off the average annual earnings of a full-time working HRM resident.

“Doesn’t it make sense to compare our councillors to what people make in Halifax? That was the rationale to our thinking,” said Gerald Walsh, a chartered accountant who headed up the volunteer-committee. and the owner of an executive search firm that annually produces a salary guide for Atlantic Canadian businesses.

Under the committee’s proposed system, councillors would have made an extra 25 percent on top of the average full-time employed HRM resident, while the deputy mayor would have received 1.1 times and the mayor 2.2 times a councillor’s pay. Based on the latest census data from Statistics Canada, that would have set council’s compensation at roughly $74,000 and the mayor’s at $163,000. Municipal councillors in HRM currently make $83,653 annually and mayor Mike Savage makes $176,000, so the committee recommended freezing those salaries until the municipality’s workforce caught up.

But councillors on Tuesday took issue with the magic number of 1.25 and the lack of supporting evidence in the committee’s report.

Deputy mayor Matt Whitman called the report “reckless” and chastised the committee members present for not understanding the duties of a deputy mayor.

“In hindsight, perhaps we could have put more data in to back up our conclusions,” Walsh said later to reporters. “We were hopeful the report would have been clearer.”

Currently city council’s salaries are tabulated annually with the average from a list of comparable Canadian cities plus an extra 25 percent. That system is “arbitrary” and “too subjective” according to the compensation committee. It doesn’t take into account mitigating factors like the municipality’s economic strength or council size, while using HRM itself in the list of comparable cities (thereby almost guaranteeing council a raise).

But one of the biggest overall issues is that nearly every comparable city in that list is using the same system to determine its own council’s pay. Everyone’s looking at what the other guys are doing, said Walsh, which results in salaries ratcheting up across the board.

“The formula, whether we go with this recommendation or not, needs to be changed,” Waye Mason told his fellow councillors, some of whom were furious at the implication they were being overpaid when $80,000 per year is low for what they could make in the private sector.

“We’re not employees. We’re public servants,” replied Mason. “To benchmark us, to look at what I do in the run of the day and compare that to the private sector, I don’t think that’s appropriate...There are plenty of people in our society who work more than they’re paid.”

Other councillors had more personal problems with the report.

“Some clown called into Rick Howe the other day and said ‘Steve Adams has a job,’” said Stephen Adams, who says he retired a few years ago from the private sector. “Check your facts.”

After several hours of discussion all three recommendations from the compensation committee were defeated. Pension changes were shot down by a vote of 11 to four, severance packages by nine to six and the recommendation to alter council’s salary system was defeated eight to seven. Councillors Brad Johns and Lorelei Nicoll both abstained from voting.

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Vol 25, No 32
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