Editorial – Ten for you, one for me

Jeff Burgar

“I’m entitled to my entitlements.” So famously said David Dingwall when questioned by a parliamentary committee investigating a severance package he got for quitting his government job.

The incident came to mind when Big Lakes County councillors voted not to take a “sympathetic” wage cut for themselves a few weeks ago.

Big Lakes County faces $8 million in bad debts from companies which can’t or won’t pay their taxes. Much of that is due to collapsed energy prices that have compounded through to every business that serves the patch. Many such companies across Alberta the past year lobbied their local governments for tax breaks. Few got anything. There were however, scattered promises to keep a lid on tax increases.

And also, the spending. Good to know, right?

The truth is, keeping a lid on taxes is hard, very hard, work. Municipal governments over many years got themselves sucked into automatic cost of living increases geared to inflation increases. Then there are “grid” levels for experience. This basically means another year on the job brings another pay bump. Plus, top of the line equipment. Great benefits. Councils are also always under pressure to add another department, or another body or two to what many in private industry would call bloated staff levels. More staff needs more space. Which needs more money for heating and maintenance.

Heck. Let’s hire our own electrician and HVAC people to keep up with all this. And so it goes.

Councils everywhere seem to rubber-stamp these ideas. The “other government” down the road, or halfway across the province is doing it. Why not us? In the face of all this, it is no surprise councillors themselves want on the gravy train.

One great way to cut spending is ban conventions and travel allowances. We can’t remember a good idea ever brought back from a national or provincial convention. Ever!

But there are always many comments like, “Do you know how much [insert Nameless Town here] pays its councillors? We need a raise.” Or “Did you know that little rinky-dink county has a full-time paid fire department? We should do that too.”

Travelling councillors are often fairly asked the question of a junket that cost taxpayers anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000 total, depending on how many go and where the “conference” was. “So what did you learn?” How to spend more taxpayer money is really what they mean when they say, “Oh, we learned lots.” This is indeed where most ideas to spend more come from.

Seriously, it’s sweet our local governments build nice buildings and pay good wages. It sort of gives the rest of us something to aspire to. It also sends a message to higher level governments. We aren’t just a district of poor farmers and unemployed struggling desperately to make ends meet. We deserve to be taken seriously. No hicks here.

So, there are many times when spending money is seen by councillors as something they must do. If only to justify their existence. Along the way, why not grab a chunk of it? Yes, “I’m entitled to my entitlements.”

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