City of Toronto Councillors are proposing to freeze their own salaries this year.
The salary for a Councillor is $96,805. That is very decent pay and much more than what a majority of Canadians earn.
Indeed, opting for a pay-freeze is a popular political move – it speaks to the economically pinched masses. It’s a populist ,“we’re all in the together” statement. Witness this comment by Councillor Case Ootes: "It would give a message to the public and taxpayers that we take the terrible economic climate seriously." A message that will resonate with many.
Councillor Kyle Rae, on the other hand, goes out on a limb and supports cost of living increases. He pointedly asserts: "For some of us, it's a job. City councillors do not get bonuses. This is cost-of-living. It's not a pay raise. I get tired about motions calling for leadership, and that somehow we are not worthy or deserving (of our salary).”
Let’s depart from the populist sentiments for a moment and look at the policy ramifications of such a decision. Does freezing one’s pay transmit a message to unions and city staff seeking pay increases that Toronto does not, as Councillor Michael Walker says, have a bottomless pit of money? Perhaps. But many of those fighting for pay increases do not earn $96,000. Nowhere near that amount. So Walker et al can “afford” a little belt tightening, but are we to demand that those earning half that amount or less should be silent and appreciate our “terrible economic climate”?
President Obama recently ordered pay freezes for White House staff earning in excess of $100,000 but he didn’t freeze pay for those earning $45,000 or $50,000 or $28,000 (woe to be an intern!) because he knows that those are the people suffering the most in an economic downturn. Those are the people that not only rely on cost-of-living increases, but represent the vast majority of Americans who need to spend (prudently and within means, of course) to help lift the economy out of the recession.
As Councillor Rae says, what he and his colleagues do is a job. And it’s a vital job. Local government affects every aspect of our lives and we need the best and brightest, as well as the civic-minded, to want to pursue a career in municipal government.
Toronto City Councillors are responsible for the sixth largest government in Canada. They earn more than Vancouver Councillors but less than Mississauga Councillors. We often hear the reasoning that CEOs are paid exorbitant salaries so that corporations get those with the most experience and drive. While there is no doubt that many CEOs are paid far more than they’re worth (especially when they are pummeling a company into the ground and shredding stock value), can we not apply the same rationale to Councillors?
We’ve tasked them with an important job. Should we not offer them commensurate compensation?
I’m not professing to know if $96,000 is an adequate salary or not and I don’t know if freezing councillor pay will save money or if it’s merely a symbolic gesture. I also don’t know if pay freezes have dissuaded quality people from seeking elected office or if, as alluded to by Councillor Rae, what effect such a move has on morale. But these and many other questions should be asked before making policy decisions.
Finally, if Councillors choose to vote a pay freeze for themselves, that’s their prerogative, but they should not use it as a reason to halt pay increases for those city employees (a 4th class constable with the Toronto Police earns $50,000) who are also struggling.