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Council rejects pay raise, perks package

Fort St. John city councillors have shelved a proposed pay raise and suite of new benefits for the city’s compensation package for council members.
City Hall
City Hall

Fort St. John city councillors have shelved a proposed pay raise and suite of new benefits for the city’s compensation package for council members.

Councillors said Monday the timing of the unbudgeted proposals wasn’t right, agreeing that, as acting mayor Gord Klassen put it, they were in an “awkward place” of determining what they get paid. They instead voted that council compensation be reviewed once per term, with the results reported not less than two years before the next general election.

“I get that it was an independent review and there’s nothing better being able to have somebody tell you what should be done, or what’s being done in other communities,” said councillor Trevor Bolin. “However, when I see something that affects July 1 of 2022, when we’re already into a budget season, sorry, no. When I see something offering vehicle allowances and these different things… I don’t think that’s us, and I don’t think that’s right now.

“I also don’t think we should be making these sorts of resolutions two months before a general election,” he said.

Proposed were pay raises for current council members to take effect starting July 1, as well as new benefits including allowances for retirement, professional development, and car insurance starting in the new year.

A June 27 report to council said the COVID-19 pandemic, record-high inflation, and incentivizing residents to run for public office all factored into the recommendations from Sixth Sense HR of Edmonton.

Speaking to the idea of a retirement allowance, Bolin said “not a chance,” and that any extra professional development was on councillors to take on individually. He said the city could spend the money on other things, such as additional paving or fixing potholes.

Councillor Lilia Hansen said she was “comfortable” with her current compensation, and said many residents have had to take pay cuts because of the pandemic and the economy. She said compensation hasn’t been a question from residents she’s spoken to who are interested in running in this fall’s election.

“I’ve never had that question asked of me, that it would be a deciding factor whether somebody ran or not… It’s either because they have ideas or concerns,” said Hansen, saying she’d like to see input from the community too, as has been done in the past. 

“That’s a good way to say, are we doing our jobs? Does the community feel that we are ready for a raise? Have we worked, have we earned it?” she said.

The suggested salary increases and new benefits would have amounted to more than $40,000 in new annual spending on council pay; a 3% raise for the mayor's position — to $99,441.01 — and 2.5% for councillors to to $39,776.40.

Four per cent retirement allowances would have cost $12,550.87 annually for mayor and council starting in 2023, according to the report, and the new professional development allowances an extra $14,000. Giving council members $300 a year for car insurance would have cost $2,100, according to the report.

Councillor Byron Stewart said he knew what his pay and benefits were going to be when ran for office, and that it was “completely wrong” for raises to come into effect July 1. He said reviewing council compensation once per term would give the council of the day a sense of where they are compared to other communities.

"I firmly disagree with the council of the day, that would be this council, making decisions that increase our wage, our remuneration, in any way during the term we were elected into,” said Stewart. “If we make any decisions, it should be decisions for the benefit and the transparent knowledge of the community, and those who may be running in the October election, so that they know what the remuneration is, they know what’s happening.”

The HR report found that while Fort St. John is 5% above average in what it pays its mayor compared to 28 benchmark communities, it is 5% below average in what it pays councillors.

Under existing policy, the base salary for the mayor's position is $89,130, based on 1,800 full-time working hours per year, and $32,850 for councillors, who are considered part-time. Their salaries increase annually by the consumer price inflation index for B.C. plus 1%, to a maximum of 3%, each year of service.

Mayor Lori Ackerman, who was not present at Monday's meeting, was paid $95,890.16 by the city in 2021, while more than half of city council earned more than $38,000 last year, including councillors Klassen, Hansen, Zabinsky, and Stewart.

The lowest paid was former councillor Becky Grimsrud at $1,960.08, who stepped down from her position at the beginning of 2021. Her replacement, Jim Lequiere, elected last May, was paid $22,476.48. Bolin earned $35,779.60.

Compensation for city council members last went up in January 2019 after the federal government eliminated tax exemptions for elected official salaries. A 30% raise in base pay was approved in 2017 after a decade of holding the line.

 The city currently pays 100% of the premiums for medical, dental, and extended health benefits, and councillors are paid $500 per month when acting mayor.

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