Comox Valley local governments are planning their 2021 budgets  |  Scott Graham photo

Local governments start their 2021 budgets; who is the CVs highest-paid official?

Jan 25, 2021 | Government, Government Review, Latest Feature

By George Le Masurier

It’s not coincidental that Comox Valley residents receive their property value assessment notices in January just as local governments start their annual budgeting processes. Property taxes are the principal source of revenue for most BC municipalities.

By provincial law, local governments must complete their 2021 budget as part of a five-year financial plan every year by March 31. Homeowners start to receive their property tax notices about a month later.

And even though local government budget meetings are open to the public, few taxpayers attend them in order to learn how local elected officials spend our tax dollars.

Do you know, for example, how much your municipal councillors are paid? How many municipal employees make more than $75,000 per year? Do you know what we pay the RCMP for protection services or how much each government has accumulated in surplus revenue?

Have you filled out Decafnation’s Local Government Performance Review? It’s a short survey measuring Comox Valley voters’ level of satisfaction with their local governments.

With the help of a few volunteers, Decafnation has compiled data from our local government’s financial reports and broke it down on a per capita cost and compared those numbers with two of our municipal neighbours: Campbell River and Nanaimo.

We used each government’s 2019 Statement of Financial Information (SOFI) and their corresponding 2019 Annual Report as the basis for our information. The 2020 reports are not yet available.

Readers can look through all of our collected data by clicking the links elsewhere on this page, or by clicking the links to each government’s financial reports.

 

ELECTED OFFICIALS SALARIES

All Comox Valley municipal elected officials are considered part-time positions. That includes the three mayor positions and regional district directors.

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells was the Comox Valley’s highest-paid elected official in 2019, earning $128,465 in salary and expenses from the city and the Comox Valley Regional District. The next highest mayor or councillor earned less than half of that amount.

Courtenay Mayor Bob Wells

On top of his $71,905 mayor’s salary, Wells took home another $47,810 from the regional district in director wages, committee compensation and expenses. He served as chair of the regional district board in 2019.

Courtenay Councillor David Frisch earned the second-highest amount of $60,782 from his salary of $28,021 as a CVRD director in addition to his $25,234 city council remuneration.

However, all three electoral area directors earned slightly more than Frisch because electoral area directors receive a higher base salary as their area’s only elected representatives.

Area C Director Edwin Grieve and Area B Director Arzeena Hamir both took home $64,849 in salary and expenses, while Area A Director Daniel Arbour earned $63,3472.

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott was the third highest-paid council member in 2019 at $50,158 — $38,384 from Comox and another $11,774 from his regional district duties.

On the expenses side, the top three were Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird who claimed slightly more in expenses ($11,000) than Comox Councillor Stephanie McGowan ($10,966) and Comox Mayor Arnott ($10,234).

But all three of those expense totals were higher than any single councillor in the City of Nanaimo (highest $10,251) and all Campbell River councillors except for Charlie Cornfield who claimed $11,782 in expenses.

 

ADMINISTRATION COSTS

In a separate spreadsheet, the Decafnation volunteers broke out some of the key administrative costs of running a local government.

One of the highlights on this spreadsheet is that all jurisdictions have increased revenues year over year, in part due to the growth of the Comox Valley.

But it also shows that tax rate growth has exceeded the Consumer Price Index for British Columbia. This is also true for Nanaimo and Campbell River. Could this be because expenses have increased faster than new growth on Vancouver Island can support?

Tax rate growth is one area where public involvement in the budgeting process can directly affect the outcome.

The chart also shows that municipal expenses — the bulk of which are labour costs — have also increased year over year and exceeded the CPI in the municipalities. But not at the Comox Valley Regional District where expenses were kept a half-point lower than the five-year CPI average.

In Comox, the five-year average shows the town’s expenses outstripping revenue by more than two percent.

 

MAKING SENSE OF SURPLUSES

One of the tricky areas of municipal budgeting involves accumulating surpluses. Provincial legislation requires regional districts and municipalities to account for surpluses differently.

Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland may accumulate “unspent surpluses” that in theory can be used for any purpose in the future. There are also reserves for an intended service, such as water and sewer reserves. These can only be used for their stated purpose, and cannot be transferred for something like road improvements.

And, there is also another type of reserves that are created by council policy and not a legislative requirement. Courtenay’s Infrastructure Renewal Reserve is one example. These types of reserves could be moved from one purpose to another, but it would require a council resolution and is not a common practice.

By contrast, the regional district may only have reserves set aside for a specific service that it provides and these are usually attached to a plan for anticipated expenditures.

As you can see in our spreadsheets, the three municipalities of Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland have a combined accumulated surplus of more than $348 million and the regional district has an additional $178 million in reserve. That compares to $305 million in Campbell River and $831 million in Nanaimo.

 

POLICING COSTS

The data shows that Courtenay clearly bears the burden of protective services in the Comox Valley. It may mean that the city has been subsidizing protective services in the other areas.

Part of this anomaly occurs because Courtenay’s population qualifies it as a city, whereas Comox has been classed as a town. Those designations may change this year. If so, Comox’s share of policing will increase and Courtenay’s share will decrease.

But it is interesting to note that policing costs increased in Courtenay last year, while they decreased in Comox and Cumberland.

The RCMP manages the Comox Valley as a single detachment. The same officers respond to calls in all jurisdictions.

Courtenay paid $9,412,733 in 2019 of the Comox Valley’s total RCMP cost of $17,869,053, or 53 percent. That was an increase of 5.5 percent over 2018 and nearly triple what the Town of Comox pays.

Comox paid $3,251,181 in 2019 or 18 percent of the total policing costs. Cumberland paid four percent and the regional district paid 25 percent.

We noted that while Courtenay pays more per capita for policing than Nanaimo, policing costs represented close to the same percentage of revenue and expenses for both cities.

 

MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES

All local governments’ financial statements include a break out of employees paid more than $75,000 per year and those paid less.

In all three municipalities and the Comox Valley Regional District, the percentage of salaries under $75,000 is greater than those paid more. But that’s not the case in Campbell River and Nanaimo. Nanaimo’s over-$75,000 salaries are 15 percent greater than those paid less. In Campbell River, the two numbers are almost even.

 

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