Recent changes to federal tax laws on Jan. 1, 2019 have removed longstanding tax exemptions for one-third of salaries for elected officials.
Proposed changes in the Stettler County budget have created the need to review the Council Remuneration Policy prior to passing the 2019 budget.
Council has debated through the budget process, equalizing fees to maintain existing net take-home salaries.
The changes from all of the increases in the policy will result in about a $39,000 increase to the council remuneration budget line.
Council moved to adopt the legislative policy as amended and to have this taken back to the policy committee for further review which passed in a 4 – 3 split vote in favour.
Council later passed the 2019 Budget further into the meeting.
Coun. James Nibourg had first moved to receive as information and not make changes which had three councillors in favour of the motion and four opposed, defeating the motion.
Coun. Wayne Nixon looked back at old pay sheets from 2018 to see if making this leap in wages was necessary and justified.
He determined the wages before any increase are almost three times the minimum wage.
“Other things to consider in my opinion are, without the exemption, we are now on a level playing field with all the ratepayers and all the employees in the County of Stettler,” said Nixon during the monthly meeting on Wed. Jan. 9.
“We don’t consider the coverage we get from the County’s benefits package which is great. If we had to pay for that individually it would cost us much more because of the numbers involved.
Nixon also included the loss of revenue which has been talked about several times to the County in recent years and the expectation of council to have our departments cut their budgets and the optics of council giving themselves a raise.
“I don’t think that plays well in the public,” said Nixon.
He furthered stated he understood the proposed change would be roughly the same take-home pay as it stands today but also reiterated a level playing field with everyone within Alberta.
Nixon suggested they create a policy to give council an increase in remuneration that has been dealt with by the policy committee.
“It would be something that we don’t have to deal with as new councillors or councils that are maybe perhaps leaving at the end of a term or things like that and it would be a lot more appropriate than a one-off decision like this,” said Nixon.
Erskine-Buffalo Lake Coun. Cheri Neitz blamed the decision on the federal government as they are the ones who have required councils across the nation to do this.
“None of us want to make this hard decision,” said Neitz. “It’s the government that’s put us in this position. I don’t think any of us want to raise our per diems.
“The government has decided that they want to do this to all municipalities in Canada and now they’ve put us in this position to decide what we need to do and I don’t like that the government has done that to us but I still think we do work hard. It is only asking for what we were bringing home before,” concluded Neitz.
Coun. Nibourg felt the decision to raise councillor per diems was not a wise choice when it comes to taxpayers money.
“We’ve cut every department except ours. The last two years we’ve had a $20,000 increase to our budget each year and now we’re proposing a $39,000 increase. It works out to about one per cent of our residential taxes. I just can’t fathom how we could do this. On one side we’re saying let’s be fiscally responsible. Cut, cut, cut everywhere else except when it comes to our own pocketbook.
“Leadership is when you take hold of the reigns and you make a decision that’s unpopular and it may hurt you if you’re trying to cut everybody else. I think we should take leadership and if not cut, at least stay the same with what we are at,” concluded Nibourg.
Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Yvette Cassidy mentioned the original reason for the higher wage was to entice people to join politics after the second world war.
Coun. Ernie Gendre felt the wage also encourages people to run for council as it takes away from their other occupations if the person running is younger.
It also shows the interest and the drive to help their community.
Nibourg agreed with Gendre’s logic, however, found the idea of having high paying positions at the expense of other departments unfair in this economic climate.
A comparison of the fire department and council was raised as to the fair and equitable treatment of County staff and their departments.
“So we are asking our volunteers to go out and fight fire, put their lives on the line for $22 an hour but we are going to sit in here for close to $40 an hour? I’m just not seeing if it’s fair and equitable,” said Nibourg.
Reeve Larry Clarke joined in the conversation saying “Fair and equitable – we do contracts with the people that work with us. The price of fuel jumps – we have a fuel surcharge in place. Fair and equitable – yes, our staff have been asked to look at what they’re doing and what their budget is but we are paying our staff fairly.
“So if you want to talk fair and equitable, this is not an increase. This is staying the same. This is keeping people on the same playing field because that is how it has been based for 50 to 60 years,” said Reeve Clarke.
“So here’s my point Mr. Clarke, the simple fact of the matter is that I absolutely agree with what you are saying,” said Nibourg. “Then let’s have a plan in place instead of knee-jerking by doing this.
Nibourg responded, “Well that’s why we need a plan! There is no plan! All we are doing is we are giving ourselves a 15 per cent increase with no plan to cut the legislative assembly budget.”
Exclusive franchise agreement
Jen Friesen, Brianna Wisem and Bob Saunders came to council in anticipation of the upcoming renewal of Botha’s 10-year exclusive franchise agreement with ATCO Electric.
Since Botha’s dissolvement, the County of Stettler has taken over control of the little hamlet, leaving decisions to the County’s council.
The ATCO employees assured the bylaws will function as normal and all assets, liabilities, rights, duties, function and obligations are given the new municipality.
The franchise agreement expires in August 2019. If signed and agreed upon, ATCO will lock in a continued source of revenue for the company while giving necessary services to the community and collect franchise fees through electric bills.
Currently, the franchise fee is set at three per cent, equating to approximately $3.21 per household per month on average.
“It’s a predictable source of revenue, encourages long term planning and orderly development of electricity infrastructure,” said Saunders.
Not signing the agreement could result in other companies coming in to compete for customers and other assets.
ATCO representatives will come back with options as to what council can do, whether it be to stay in the franchise fee agreement or to abandon it. Timelines were also requested.