"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The always-thorny issue of councillors' pay

Several years ago, Coquitlam council adopted a policy of awarding itself the same annual percentage pay raise that the city's workers receive through the bargaining process. Last night, however, the councillor-in-permanent-opposition-who-sits-among-us (CIPOWSAU) attempted but failed to overturn the policy.
My 'pay stub.'*
CIPOWSAU used the discussion around final reading of the 2014 budget bylaws to raise the issue. Remember: this is a budget that, as I wrote last week, once again lowers the average tax increase facing Coquitlam taxpayers while, at the same time, increases services and programs across a broad spectrum of areas, from police and fire, to parks and culture.
At first, CIPOWSAU wielded some erroneous math in making his argument to kill the 1.75% hike, incorrectly saying at one point that it would result in the mayor receiving a raise in the magnitude of tens of thousands of dollars a year.
In fact, all the raises for all council will amount to $9,850 a year. This, in turn, creates a 0.01% tax increase, which in turn equals 17 cents a year per household.
But, of course, the strongest argument in favour of killing the increase is one of optics, and I certainly understand how it appealing it might look for a cost-conscious council to axe its own increases.
On the other hand, it's also being penny wise and pound foolish, because the logical outcome for a council that refuses to raise its own pay incrementally is that, because of inflation, council's pay would become increasingly minuscule--to the point where, in 15-20 years or so, qualified candidates might very well decide that its not worth the time and effort to be on council. And that would certainly not be in Coquitlam's best interests.
Moreover, a future council would eventually have to take the always-controversial step (remember Port Coquitlam's quandry of a few years ago?) of attempting to bridge the big gap in one big raise--a move that would have a significant negative impact on the homeowners who happen to be paying taxes in that year, while letting previous taxpayers off the hook.
Personally, I didn't need this year's raise, and said as much to my colleagues in private several weeks ago. I also agree with a position advanced by Mayor Richard Stewart last night that the provincial government should take the issue out of all councils' hands by legislating a standardized pay scale reflecting the size of the jurisdiction being governed.
Ultimately, I supported the increase on the principle that a small, incremental raise in councillors' pay is the best way to link current council remuneration to current taxpayers. Delaying increases only serves to unfairly burden the future taxpayer.
In the end, council voted 7-2 (with Bonita Zarrillo siding with CIPOWSAU) to support the increase.

*I've illustrated this blog with a copy of one of my recent pay stubs. It shows that a councillor's salary for two weeks is $1422.12 before taxes. This works out to just under $37,000 a year. On top of that, we receive a $711 bi-weekly indemnity related to our service, plus a car allowance.
You'll see in the bottom left corner of the print-out that gross year-to-date pay amounts to $57,786. I understand that this figure is higher than you'd rightly conclude (if looking at the above numbers) because it reflects lump-sum retroactive payments we received following the approval of the city-workers contract last year.
And, for the record, councillors are not enrolled in any pension plan, gold- or otherwise-plated.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Budget breathing room for taxpayers

By a vote of 8-1 (with the lone dissenter being the usual opponent), Council gave the first three readings to a series of budget bylaws last night. Here are the notes for the speech I delivered in support of the 2014 budget.

I will oppose this budget. Actually, let me change the tensing of that sentence. I would oppose this budget:
  • If it didn’t continue lowering the average tax-rate increase.
  • If it didn’t continue lowering the residential tax-rate increase.
  • If it didn’t continue the one-point tax shift that makes commercial tax-rate increases even lower.
  • If it didn’t provide for major new public-safety initiatives.
  • If it didn’t respond to taxpayers’ requests for transportation improvements
  • And if it didn’t carry with it a major commitment to continually examine city services, to see what should be added and – significantly – what should be stopped.

And so, what does Budget 2014 deliver?
Spirit Square, Coquitlam (Photo by Terry O'Neill)
First, and importantly, it calls for an average tax rate increase of 2.42% -- almost a full half-a-point lower than last year’s increase, which was lower than the year before’s, and which in turn was lower than the year before that. Indeed, since the high-water mark of an average 7.11% increase in 2009, the average tax-rate increase has been on a straight line down. And that’s good.
Hand-in-hand with that, both the residential rate and the commercial rate increases are lower as well, compared to last year. And, because of our continuing commitment to a one-point tax shift, the commercial rate increase will be only 1.8%. This is good news too.
And what about those public-safety initiatives? Four new firefighters and two new RCMP officers represent a pretty major commitment, and so I think we’ve met that standard.
As for transportation improvements, which our annual Ipsos Reid survey continues to ranks very high our citizens’ wish list, this budget commits significant funds to road rehabilitation and road enhancement in every part of Coquitlam.
And what about future decisions? I was very pleased when I heard, as part of our budget deliberations, that our management team was launching a new initiative to identify services and programs that are no longer needed, with the aim of eliminating them….. thus allowing the property-tax-payer to keep a few more dollars in his or her pocketbook or for the city to add new services. The initiative is called the Stop-Doing List, and if there’s one initiative that should never be put on that list, it’s the Stop-Doing List itself!
And so: I had six criteria for the budget, and all six were met.
This doesn’t mean the budget is perfect, from my point of view. The record of our lengthy deliberations shows that I opposed some spending measures that the majority approved. But while the budget is not perfect, it is certainly good enough. And it’s even better when you factor in the major decrease in utilities fees which the mayor mentioned. In fact, it means the average homeowner will pay only $15 more on his or her combined property-tax/utilities bill this coming year. 
But on the strength of its diminishing tax-rate increase alone, a rate which gives us the second-lowest tax increase in more than two decades (the lowest, in 2005, being 2.27%) it is definitely good enough. On the single issue of tax increases -- the one everyone watches, the one that makes the headlines --  it’s certainly better than the budget of 1994 (4.8% average increase), '95 (4.8%), '96 (3.45%), '97 (5.36%), '98 (4.5%), '99 (4.5%), 2000 (5.78%), 2001 (4.9%), 2002 (2.77%), 2003 (4.1%) and, well, you get the picture.
If there is any hesitation among my colleagues over whether to support this budget, let me suggest: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. --meaning that insisting on perfection often results in no improvement at all. If a majority of us voted against this budget, not only would all the hard work we’ve done be put in jeopardy, but the landmark low levels of tax-rate-rise that we’ve achieved might also be threatened.
There’s also something called “the Pareto Principle” or 80–20 rule, which observes that it commonly takes 20% of your effort to complete 80% of a task, while to complete the last 20% of a task—that part of it which it takes to achieve a perfect outcome-- takes 80% of the effort. Considering this, along with the fact that achieving absolute perfection is impossible, leads us to the law of diminishing returns, in which it becomes clear that the closer one gets to achieving perfection, the increasingly inefficient your work becomes.
And so, what does it mean for the budget tonight? As I said before, it’s a good one, but not perfect. But, remember, not only is achieving “perfection” is impossible, but the longer we work trying to achieve perfect, the harder and more inefficient that work becomes, and the greater the chance that we’ll become stalled and achieve nothing at all.
Something is certainly better than nothing.
And this something – this budget which answers the needs of so many of our citizens, from the hopeful new homeowners on Burke Mountain to the actively involved seniors at Dogwood Pavilion, from the commuter looking for better roads to the merchant looking for a lighter tax load – is certainly something worth supporting.