Friday, December 8, 2023

In final days of civic budget work, Councillor Cunningham highlights salaries as key element to proposed tax hike

Thanks to some public participation at Monday's Special Council session, there was a bit more discussion to be heard on the City of Prince Rupert's Five Year Financial Plan. 

The meeting which was first noted on December 1st, was called to provide for the first three readings of the required bylaw.

As we noted earlier this week, Prince Rupert Resident Terry Sawka  took advantage of the public conversation period at Council to speak to a few of his concerns towards the city's financial planning for the Budget process.  

An overview that mostly focused on some of the spending elements he had previously noted from the Financial presentation of early November.

Following his overview, Prince Rupert Councillor Barry Cunningham offered up a few words noting how the process was getting 'bogged down' by what he suggested were 'minor things', while noting that the focus for the proposed 7.7 per cent tax hike should be salaries.

The Councillor noting of the recent pay bumps for both the contract members of the RCMP and for the city's unionized CUPE workforce and exempt staff, seeking some additional background on those themes from CFO Corinne Bomben. 

"The increase of 7.7 can she break that down, it's been broken down before and we've mentioned it before. 

How much of that is actually a wage increase for the CUPE contract and the RCMP contract to bring it into perspective. 

The 7.7 we're talking about wages for our workers and the RCMP as the bulk of that tax increase and we're sort of bogging down on minor things" -- Councillor Barry Cunningham at the December 4th Special Council Session

As Councillor Terri Forester observed, the RCMP contract was something somewhat beyond the control of the City.  

The recent pay increase part of the national negotiations that followed a  succssful unionization drive by the members and now are factored into the national contract policing agreements. 

The salary bumps that came with the first contract and those to follow, passed on to the municipal governments that are served by the Federal force.

August 2023 -- UBCM report features look at RCMP service related themes for municipalities 
October 2021 -- Federation of Canadian Municipalities takes up the torch for assistance on RCMP salaries for cash strapped communities
August 2021 -- Mounties ratify first contract, with significant pay bumps to come
July 2021 -- With a first contract possibly soon to be in place with RCMP union, Municipal governments across BC await word on increased cost for policing 
June 2020 -- UBCM gives Municipalities a heads up on path towards RCMP negotiations 

Of the proposed tax increase of 7.7 percent 1.42 percent has been allocated to the policing contract, while a larger 3.97 percent and an additional 0.77 percent is required for other civic labour themes

That amount owing to the recently concluded CUPE contract and other salary requirements for the City.

The increasing cost of the civic workforce was previously  noted by Councillor Cunningham at the November 27th session when he observed of how the recent contract negotiations with CUPE had moved forward.

"But you know of the 7 point something increase,  if you look at it, almost six of it, a little more is wages a new contract for the RCMP and our CUPE workers. 

You know you put up taxi fares you have to pass it on  to the customer, we put up wages we have to pass it on to the town. Everyone wants more money right now.

We have to honour those commitments we have made to our workers. You know our workers have slugged it out through the winter, some of them working 20 hour days. 

And you know they got modest increases in their contract this time, they were actually helping us. 

But you know at the end of the day  everyone gets a raise and we've got to live with it."

And the Councillor is not wrong, as part of the process of contract negotiation, everyone often gets a raise and deserves fair compensation. 

However, when it comes to such things as Labour negotiations, the numbers of staff and civic workers on hand and other employment themes, the Council membership has rarely noted of those elements as part of public discussion around the Chamber.

The only notice of the new CUPE contract of note this year, came from the City Manager in April, who offered up a short summation that the negotiations had concluded, bringing four years of labour stability and wage increases for workers. 

From those notes to Council, there were no details to share on the outcome of the contract or impact on the civic finances; the focus instead from the presentation by the City Manager was on the city's issues related to themes of tax caps and other fiscal challenges. 

Through most of the year the state of negotiations, or position of the city may have had towards them, had not been noted in Council and its likely only those who actually work for the city knew that the negotiations were even underway.

When it comes to how much the city invests in its workforce both unionized and exempt staff, Councillor Cunningham is perhaps the best one to make observations on those salaries, having served the longest on Council and having had a front row seat to what has been a significant period of growth for the civic payroll.

Using the City's Annual Reports available on the City of Prince Rupert website, we get a bit of a guide to the path forward through the years when it comes to one of the largest expenses on the civic listings.

From the annual document, we learn that Staffing levels seemingly have not changed much since 2015, with the annual reports noting anywhere from  "approximately 250-259" employees with the City from year to year.  

The 2016 City of Prince Rupert Annual Report head count
of approximately 257 full and part time employees

The 2022 City of Prince Rupert Annual Report head count 
of approximately 250 full and part time employees

A curious count, considering what has been a fairly dedicated approach to filling past unfilled positions and creating a number of new ones on city staff over the last eight years.

Something that might suggest that a proper census head count should be taken by the City and that count provided for the public as the definitive word (rather than an approximate guesstimate) as to just how many full and part time, unionized and exempt staff, toil on our behalf.

Whatever their numbers, what those working for the city take in the way of salary has been on a steady increase since the 2014 Statement of Financial Report recorded a total of remuneration for City employees of all posts coming in at 13.5 million dollars

The 2015 findings noted that 52 city employees were listed at the 75,000 dollar reporting benchmark.

Seven years later the 2022 SOFI Report notes of total remuneration at 17.5 million dollars for all employees, with 85 employees now entered in the 75K ledger requiring reporting. 

41 of those making more than 100,000 dollars.

Back in 2012, the total remuneration for all employees was just a shade over 12 million dollars, so that's been a decade of surging compensation and benefits requirements that has evolved for the most part off the discussion list at City Council.

The City's Annual Reports and SOFI declarations from 2016 to 2022 can be reviewed here.

The elected members of the Council have also contributed to the increase in payroll costs.

In 2014, the Mayor's post was not considered full time, then Mayor Jack Mussallem taking home 40,000 dollars in salary with close to twenty 20,000 dollars in expenses claimed in the final year of his term of office. 

At that time there were rumblings from Council that with all the talk of potential LNG development of that era, that the post should move to full time. But that shift would come a bit later, long after the LNG possibilities and accelerated industrial development had long faded from view.

The first step towards  that push arrived in May of 2015 when a wage increase for the Mayor's post was taken from the Planning for Major Projects budget.

That 2015 decision remained in place until 2019 and a renewed call to retain the Mayor's post as full time after its four years interim status, that process was launched in March of 2019

That following the 2018 call by Mayor Lee Brain for participants in a Blue Ribbon panel to review compensation levels.

At the conclusion of their work, the group had  recommended full time status for the mayor's post and annual increases for the city councillors

By the time Mr. Brain left office he was collecting $86,349 in salary and benefits as the Full time mayor, along with additional income from Regional District and other regional related board positions.

Putting the Prince Rupert Mayor's post in the company of medium sized cities in the province and far ahead of those nearby communities along the highway 16 corridor.

That compensation blue print remains in place for Herb Pond the current Mayor who returned to office in the 2022 election after fourteen years on the municipal sidelines. 

The Mayor and the newly elected council of five returnees and one newcomer earning from the new template.

Also to be accounted for when it comes to civic spending, is how much Council members and senior staff claim for expenses and travel, listings that rarely are made public by the civic administration and conversations if they take place at all, which are rarely noted in public by the council members.

If our civic leaders are going to point towards salaries as the main reason for increased taxation, they probably should be ready to provide far more information towards those costs for the taxpayers than they currently do. 

That so residents can determine if they are receiving good value for their continued increased contributions to the civic treasury.

The budget process likely comes to a close at Monday's Council session, when the Fourth and Final reading for the Five year Financial Plan could be part of the Agenda.

If it does appear on the Agenda, then Monday also offers up the last public comment opportunity towards the city's Budget work for 2024.

Our look at the 2024 Budget program can be explored here.

More notes on past Council Discussions can be reviewed here.

1 comment:

  1. Barry voted for all the administration and CUPE raises. Why complain.