Editorial – Other people’s money

Jeff Burgar

An administrator in government was once asked why he, like many others in his position, paid generously above market rates for staff.

Let’s step back. Each time there is an energy boom in Alberta, everybody outside the oil and gas sector sucks it up. High wages in the patch draw people like flies to honey. Those outside wanting to keep their people must pay big dollars or risk losing them. This leads to problems. Businesses, industry and government that can compete do. But many small businesses can’t match patch wages. Usually, they do their best. Owners tighten their belts and take wage cuts. Sometimes the businesses close because they simply can’t get staff.

In a perverse way, government assistance programs and unemployment insurance can make it quite attractive even to be unemployed. Our former provincial government, perhaps not intending to do so, helped level the playing field. The NDP $15 per hour minimum wage was not particularly intended for this. Many small businesses wanted to pay higher wages, but were afraid to do so. They worried the competition down the street would lower their prices to the public, even as the first business was raising its own prices to pay higher wages. This, in the long run, would take away their hard-fought for customers. In theory, the government pay policy put everybody in the same boat.

Of course, there are always people who will pay staff under the table. And always people who will take a lower pay rate just to have money, even when they already have jobs. Big bonuses, no taxes and benefits are paid by either party.

Some days, it’s just too hard to pay and pay and pay taxes and claims and benefits when you see the way it all gets spent, but that’s another story.

This is all very interesting in the City of Edmonton. Looking to keep tax increases at a “zero” level next year, it proposes to save money by shutting down some community recreation facilities. Three small swimming pools and two arenas might be sold, or turned over to some kind of community or private operator or “partner.”

Edmonton’s mayor says bigger recreation centres are more efficient for the city to run. He didn’t say why. Do private operators or clubs simply work harder and smarter, and for less, than city staff? “Big” levels the field?

So is this what will to happen to the five community fire halls in Big Lakes County around Lesser Slave Lake, now under review? They have a county paid fire chief and country gear and county paid expenses. Firefighters are all volunteer.

And they still might be closed?

Is that where Edmonton is heading? Once the volunteers and “partners” run out of energy, what do you think will happen?

Which brings us back to our government supervisor and our original question: “Why pay so much?” His answer, with a straight face, speaks volumes of how people spending someone else’s money think.

“Well, we’re government. We have to hire the best, and pay the most, to make sure your tax dollars are properly spent.”

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