Cobourg council votes itself a raise

By Cecilia Nasmith

It's a major move for a sitting council to vote itself a raise, but that happened this week at Cobourg's committee-of-the-whole session.

As of Jan. 1, 2020 – providing it is approved as part of the budget process for 2020 – the mayor's annual salary will rise to $48,100, with $38,400 for the deputy mayor and $33,670 for each councillor. Further adjustments will be made each year on July 1 in accordance with the Consumers Price Index cost of living.

The move follows extensive studies in 2018 and a presentation this week by Paul Pagnuelo on behalf of the Cobourg Taxpayers Association in front of a large and supportive contingent in the gallery.

Compensation for Police Services Board members will no longer be calculated as a percentage of councillors' salaries, the motion from Deputy Mayor Suzanne Seguin continued, but instead established at $8,236 for the chair and $6,589 for members. This amount too is subject to annual July 1 CPI adjustments.

In both cases, council and Police Services Board, compensation will be reviewed the third year of each term of council.

Seguin pointed out that the increases are less than what Pagnuelo proposed – the deputy mayor's compensation being 80% of the mayor's instead of 90%, and councillors bringing in 70% of the mayor's salary instead of 80%.

“We are just five months into this council term, and we should constantly look at what the rest of this term will be,” she said.

“If there is room for a top-up in year three, we do have room to look at that.”

Pagnuelo's presentation shared the group's belief that council is underpaid. Calculate the current compensation on the basis of putting in 35 hours of work each week on behalf of the town, he said, and the pay is less than minimum wage.

“It doesn't serve the interests of democracy by erecting financial barriers that limit the pool of candidates to those who are independently wealthy and retired,” he said.

“Council remuneration should be at a level to attract and retain a mix of working, self-employed and retired residents.”

It's an awkward conversation to have with taxpayers, he allowed, but he urged councillors not to settle for an unfair deal for fear of public backlash and a perception that some elected officials are only out to line their pockets.

“You are running a complex multi-million-dollar corporation with $49.7-million in total revenues and 308 employees in 2017. The spread in base salary between council positions is unjustifiable, considering workload, skills and the fact that each member has one vote.”

The figures suggested were based on their own research of 19 municipalities, including Port Hope. In that case alone, he said, Port Hope has about 2,900 fewer people but its mayor's salary of $48,400 is almost $8,000 more than Cobourg's mayor makes.

Councillor Brian Darling asked if improved compensation might make it harder to attract the many volunteers the town relies upon for its advisory boards, who must give their time at no charge to spend huge amounts of time doing the research and providing the background council requires to make the proper decisions.

“There's a huge distinction to be made,” Pagnuelo insisted.

“Demands on councillors' time are horrendous. I watch you every week. I watch how you are prepared for these meetings. The demands are, I think, extraordinary, and how most of you can balance your commitments to work real jobs or your families in such circumstances – I have to applaud all of you. I don't think it's unreasonable to pay people what they are worth.

“These groups are not bring asked the same demands and the same responsibilities. They are just people who want to volunteer. Not everyone is looking for money.”

Councillor Aaron Burchat wondered if a phased-in approach to a raise might be better, recalling council's recent months-long effort to hold a tax increase down to 2% during the budget process.

“Quite frankly, it's now or never,” Pagnuelo stated.

“There's nothing to be gained politically by doing it in stages.”

He estimated council would have to find an extra $50,000 to pay these raises, but expressed confidence that “you can easily cover that off through trade-off of other expenditures.”

His immediate suggestion was to find “town efficiencies” and perhaps draw on the Northam Industrial Park operational surplus.

Mayor John Henderson asked if any consideration had been given to public feedback from a wider audience than the Cobourg Taxpayers Association.

The motion is at committee-of-the-whole stage, Seguin said, and not to be finalized until next Monday. As well, the motion has the raise subject to approval in the budget process, which will be a lengthy exercise that begins in September and includes a wide range of public-input opportunities.

“I think that is legitimate and reasonable,” Councillor Emily Chorley declared.

“I am in agreement that it's time for a correction to the salary for members of council. It's very important we don't allow these low levels to be a barrier to participation, and we continue to attract and retain very competent individuals.”

“This is taxpayer money, and I think we all earn it,” Seguin agreed.

“I think we all work really hard for it, but it's a big step for a sitting council to give itself this much of a raise.”