Scoring a free chair for my office felt so good because free is so rare.

Behest of the West: I can’t find sense in these salaries

Tofino pays six councillors $79,599 while Ucluelet pays four $91,028.

I was elated to win the Ucluelet Aquarium’s free chair sweepstakes last Saturday.

I didn’t even have to buy a ticket. All I needed to do was sit in my office, notice a Facebook post with a picture of a chair and the word ‘Free,’ fire up my mini van and book it to victory.

It was a Saturday score of Grey Cup proportions.

There is no feeling quite like paying nothing for something with a smidgen of usefulness. Free furniture is more relaxing to lounge in. Free t-shirts are more comfortable. Free hats fit better.  Free beer tastes more delicious.

A key component of free’s glory is that it’s unique. Things tend to come at a cost. You read about Tofino and Ucluelet’s 2015 Statements of Financial Information in your newspaper recently and learned that running a town carries an extreme cost. Millions of dollars are spent managing our slices of paradise. Which is fine; it’s an important paradise and it needs supervision.

It wasn’t surprising to see our towns’ administrators earning six figures and it wasn’t surprising to hear groans from locals who feel they work harder for much less. That’s a tough sell to peddle because both towns have extremely committed CAO captains at the helm. They earn what they make. It was surprising though to see the wage gap between Ucluelet’s councillors and Tofino’s.

Let’s nix the myth that our local leaders are volunteers. They aren’t. They get paid. We pay our elected officials to look out for us and make decisions on our behalf. That’s an important job and it should pay well. Our municipal councillors should be paid more. Higher salaries would attract higher calibre candidates and why wouldn’t we want our best locals in charge? When our councils get confused we all lose so we should put our best and brightest at that table.

Regardless, the discrepancy between the two councils’ salaries is puzzling.

In 2015, Ucluelet’s four councillors: Marilyn McEwen, $24,837, Randy Oliwa, $22,917, Sally Mole, $22,197 and Mayco Noel, $21,077, were compensated to a noticeably higher tune than Tofino’s: Greg Blanchette, $14,084, Ray Thorogood, $13,399, Duncan McMaster, $13,324, Cathy Thicke, $13,144, Dorothy Baert, $13,139 and Al Anderson, $12,509.

Tofino has two more councillors than Ucluelet does, which is a mystery because the difference in population between 1,876 to 1,627 isn’t enough to justify two more hands on deck.  The bigger mystery though is why Tofino pays six councillors $79,599 while Ucluelet pays four $91,028.

Many of our councillors have full-time jobs outside their district duties so let’s politely assume they put 20 hours a week into their municipal service. At 20 hours a week, Tofino’s average council salary of $13,266 is roughly $12.65 an hour. For those same 20-hour weeks, Ucluelet’s average of $22,757 is worth roughly $21.90 an hour. Those hourly wages don’t look like they’re for the same job.  The spending gap widens when we include our mayors’ salaries. Ucluelet’s Dianne St. Jacques received $33,679 in 2015. Tofino’s Josie Osborne received $22,664. That’s roughly $32.39 and $21.79 per hour respectively based on a 20-hour work week.

Putting the mayors aside, it’s tough to find a Vancouver Island community that pays its councillors as much as Ucluelet does.

Cumberland has a population of 3,398 and pays its four councillors an average of $8,363. Port Hardy has a population of 4,008 and pays its six councillors an average of $12,253. Duncan has a population of 4,932 and pays its six councillors an average of $14,863. Sidney has a population of 11,583 and pays its six councillors an average of $14,978. Parksville has a population of 11,977 and pays its six councillors an average of $14,347. Comox has a population of 13,627 and pays its six councillors an average of $16,734. Ukee even tops North Cowichan’s average councillor salary of $21,975 and those six councillors oversee 28,807 constituents.

Campbell River’s council has a $23,498 average salary. That tops Ucluelet’s but so does its population of 31,188.

I’m not suggesting Ucluelet’s councillors don’t earn their keep, again I think we should be paying our leaders a salary that reflects the importance of their roles, but it’s weird to see this town’s tiny tax base dishing out more dollars to its elected officials than larger Island communities and it’s even weirder to see Tofino look so inexpensive in comparison.

 

Andrew Bailey is the editor of the Westerly News. You can find his weekly column ‘Behest of the West’ on page 4 of our print edition every Wednesday.