Time for fat-cat boot camp in civil service

Oh, what heady times for local columnists. With the many swirling issues presently vying for collective discourse, one scarcely knows where to begin!

Oh, what heady times for local columnists. With the many swirling issues presently vying for collective discourse, one scarcely knows where to begin!

MLA salaries? Proposed francophone school in the south end? The fluoride debate? And who can resist Mary-Ann Barr’s succulent inquiry recently posed in the run-up to the upcoming spring election: “Are the Tories really in for a run for their money?”

Yes, Mary-Ann, I believe they are. Details to follow. . . .

Let’s begin for now with one of the most controversial thorns in the side of every run-of-the-mill, hard-working, taxpaying Albertan: government largesse.

Specifically, respecting the salaries of elected officials and their fat-cat advisers in the public sector.

A former legislature member, Ray Speaker, advised a hearing looking into this matter that Alison Redford is the highest paid premier in Canada, but possibly the lowest paid person in her office.

He stated that Redford’s salary of $211,000 is considerably less than the $264,000 garnered by her chief adviser, Stephen Carter. Speaker also noted that the top civil servant in each ministry makes more than $250,000 annually — well beyond the $170,000-plus earned by cabinet ministers.

Speaker told the hearing that cabinet ministers and the premier ought to make close to what their advisers are getting, but doubted the public would accept such a steep salary increase.

Speaker’s right on both counts.

The public won’t accept further increases of such magnitude and elected officials should make close to (arguably, more than) the advisers they are elected to manage.

To be clear: no one’s salary should increase. Quite the opposite.

We need to implement “fat-cat-boot-camps” throughout our heavy-laden provincial bureaucracy to trim the stunning largesse of these civil servants, and inject a dose of reality into public sector remuneration at every level.

It’s unjustified for these civil servants to live this high off the hog in Edmonton at the expense and sacrifice of taxpayers who, for the most part, struggle to make ends meet every month.

It’s bad enough that Stelmach and his cabinet promptly voted themselves a 30 per cent pay raise in the wake of their 2008 election victory, and that Albertans periodically cough up millions of dollars to fund grossly overcompensated “transition allowances” paid to retiring members of the legislature ($750,000 to Gary Mar for 14 years in office, and an estimated $1 million to Ed Stelmach for his 19 years, for example).

But now to discover that our tax dollars are spent supporting these excessively bloated salaries of civil servants who make substantially more than the elected officials they advise, is simply unacceptable.

A report released this month by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy reveals that provincial spending on public sector salaries has shot up by 119 per cent since 2000 — nearly double the growth rate across the rest of Canada.

“Wages, previously roughly at par with the rest of the country, are now higher (in many cases very substantially) across all public sector categories … consuming 95 per cent of the increase in provincial revenues over the past decade.”

The report continues: “At the same time, the number of public sector employees has grown faster than the overall population; it is difficult to attribute this sharp uptick to a rise in productivity, or the need to compete with private industry for skilled workers.”

We need to trim the fat, and it ought to start right at the top with cabinet and their financially well-endowed associates. Our provincial government currently employs around 6,000 senior managers — one for every four front-line workers!

As parents of five school-age children, my husband and I are frankly stupefied at the magnitude of school fees, for example, and fundraising relegated to overburdened parents to support the education of their children in basic school programs (excluding extracurricular activities involving sports, music, drama, etc).

Why should Alberta parents pay huge fees for basic classes? For curriculum books? Why are parents having to pay out of pocket approximately $300 to $500 per year for basic programming and books to send one child to high school?

Why does it cost an additional $260 to $400 for that child to play one extracurricular school sport? With parents often needing to fundraise over and above that?

I’m starting to get a clearer picture now of where our hard-earned tax dollars end up.

And from the vantage point of this run-of-the-mill, hard-working, taxpaying Albertan: it ain’t pretty. And it’s gotta change.

Vesna Higham is a local lawyer, former Red Deer city councillor and a freelance columnist.

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