Satisfaction: the real pay benchmark?
There is no easy way for elected officials to set their own pay scale. One probably needs a full term in office to really know if the benefits of trying to do what’s best for the city is compensated by a $55,000 city council salary, considering the hours worked, the responsibility and the public grief that comes with the office.
We know that in the business world, CEOs and board members of corporations similar in size and scope to that of a Red Deer-sized city generally earn a whole lot more than elected councillor.
But they are tasked with making a profit for shareholders, not spending money appropriated from people by force of law. But even when corporate leaders create losses, we’ve seen plenty of news stories of outrageous bonus plans that enrich the makers of decisions that don’t pan out.
How are their salaries calculated? For many corporations, it’s done using a system similar to the one our city council adopted this week. There are committees, and even other corporations, that are given the task of answering the question of “what’s fair?”
The pressure on these committees or hired consultants, is to reply with ever-increasing salary results. If your own living depends on giving favourable replies, and if you’d like to be called back and increase your clientele, you’d say to top business administrators something like: “Well, yes indeed, your contribution is as valuable as the above-average group to which your company is benchmarked.”
And thus the top-average benchmark becomes the new average, which must be topped by others in the same group of companies who obviously consider themselves above average in worthiness. You can see where this is headed, and that’s precisely what often happens in corporate boardrooms.
That’s the danger of third-party assessments of salaries. But absent a market-force supply/demand equation for pay, or a negotiated contract with a union, it’s probably the best method we can hope for.
When the next mayor and council are elected this fall, their pay package will be set by a third party, who will compare our mayor’s total package to that of other Western Canadian cities our size. They will attempt to factor in that Red Deer is growing more rapidly than most other cities our size (and it is), and their relative expected workloads.
Councillors will get 55 per cent of the dollar result of that. And two years hence (mid-term for the next council) and every four years after that, the third-party process of asking “what’s fair?” will be renewed.
Does anyone want to bet that Red Deer will not be placed just a little bit above the average benchmark? And that other committees in other cities will not look at Red Deer and readjust their average just a little bit?
For myself, I believe the current mayor and council do indeed earn their pay. And the vast majority of Red Deerians agree.
The city engages regular satisfaction surveys, and although the questions mostly relate to satisfaction with services versus tax load, if there were widespread unhappiness with council pay, that sentiment would show up on the survey.
It never does. It bears repeating that almost all Red Deerians who are asked by a survey (which is scientifically balanced to reflect the entire community) are happy with what we get for our taxes. That holds true, survey after survey.
That’s the best reflection on council pay that I can think of.
I will tell you here not to disregard the whining of editorial columnists or the letters to the editor you see roaring on these pages, but to put it all in context.
What are we complaining most about (me included)? Bike lanes?
Even our snow removal problems are being tackled well. Ask anyone who’s driven through pot-holed and snow-drifted Edmonton in the last few days.
That, you must agree, is the sound of a relatively happy city. That is the measure of whether our city council is worth its pay.
Red Deer has indeed taken on a significant infrastructure debt. That’s part of the burden of a city that is growing quickly.
Self-appointed watchdogs (newspaper columnists included) engage the public discussion over how much debt we should reasonably be able to handle.
But we do not engage a whole lot of discussion of what a councillor or mayor ought to be paid. Why not?
I say it’s because, when we look at the whole picture of Red Deer and look into the future a little, the overwhelming majority of us are happy with what we get for our taxes.
That should be the benchmarked average, for all cities.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email email@example.com.