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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-$75,000 salaries are 15 percent greater than those paid less. In Campbell River, the two numbers are almost even.
BROWSE OUR DATA
Click these links to view the data compiled by Decafnation volunteers.
2019 Comox Valley Cost of Governance
Comox Valley Local Government Administration Inflation of Costs
CV Staff Salaries and Expenses
OTHER KEY LINKS
Here are links to local government financial reports that we used to collect our data.
City of Courtenay Annual Reports
Town of Comox Reports and Publications
Financial Reports – The Village of Cumberland
CVRD Statement of Financial Information (SoFI)
Campbell River Financial Plans & Reports
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“If I had a million dollars
Well I’d buy you a green dress
But not a real green dress that’s cruel”
– Barenaked Ladies
Imagine what our community in the Comox Valley could do with an extra million dollars every year! Maybe we could buy some of the land from 3L for much needed park space for our children and our children’s children. We could sure use the extra cash to pay for the major cost of moving the sewer force main and to upgrade our sewage treatment plant. We could set aside some of the windfall to provide shelter for the homeless. I’m sure that you have lots of good ideas of your own (apart from those suggested by the Barenaked Ladies) for how we could spend the money.
At this point, you saying, “Dream on, Ken! Where are we going to find 1 M$.” Keep reading!
Some of you may have noticed that the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox are across the street from each other. The only thing separating the two is an invisible line. Everyday, people from the two communities cross that invisible line on their way to work or to the grocery store.
Now imagine that the invisible line disappeared. The two would become “Comotenay” or “Courtomox” if you prefer. Now imagine that the busy folks, the “cooks” who do the real work maintaining our infrastructure and delivering our local government services continue to happily go to work each day at their Comotenay offices. However, it would be confusing to all of those “cooks” if they were taking orders from two different “chefs”. Sadly, some but not many of the “chefs” would have to go.
Let’s assume that the more expensive “chefs” in Courtenay win the coin toss and some of the “chefs” in Comox have to find other gigs. If you add up the annual cost of Comox Council, CAO, CFO, Director of Planning, Director of Engineering, Parks Manager, Public Works Superintendent and Fire Chief you come up with an annual savings of over 1 M$ per year. Given that there are clones for all of these positions at Courtenay City Hall and given that all of the other staff in Comox would remain, it is a safe bet that the people of this community wouldn’t notice the difference if the invisible line disappeared!
Most rational people here would agree with you. Perhaps George would conduct a survey?
However , the ” amalgamation” or elimination of a local government will not happen until there is a crisis. Right now it is COVID, but the economic crisis is coming, along with tent cities . This is the only thing that will motivate the Provincial Government to mandate efficient local government.
Meanwhile, local governments have cash to do the things you have mentioned,as well as hold the line on rates for water, liquid wate and solid waste. Put the excessive reserve funds back into the community and still have cash for emergencies.
Sounds logical at first glance — the elimination of supposed duplication — but what does that “extra” million dollars in remuneration currently buy? Those salaried people in Comox are busy doing work that someone would have to do even after any amalgamation. A merged Courtenay-Comox would need a much bigger staff than Courtenay currently has. And bigger municipalities pay more for executives than do smaller ones. Cost savings just aren’t there.
It could be argued that the current rivalry between the city and the town keeps them more efficient and closer to their residents’ needs, with competitive tax rates,
I know of no amalgamation that has lead to lower-cost government. In fact there are many examples across Canada of ballooning expenses post-restructuring.
Based on the revenue information provided by George, the 3 local government system (Courtenay, Comox, CVRD ) costs about 50 percent more per person than the single Goverment system of Campbell River. Campbell River manages their own water and liquid waste, while cost sharing with CVRD on solid waste. CVRD provides water and liquid waste, solid waste to Courtenay ,Comox. I allocated 60 % of the revenue for this ball park estimate.
So if you have money, it does not matter if the local government services cost 50 percent more. If you are low income, it can be the breaking point between rent and a tent.
Thanks again for raising this issue. We have good services and good people in local goverment. We live in a great place. Increasingly , Unaffordable for many who live here.
The reality is that we , the public, expect our elected represenatives to represent all constituents , not just those in million dollars homes. User pay impacts most on low income residents – the most.
So if we are going to continue to have huge reserve funds, I would hope our elected representatives would make a change from user pay, to the wealthy homeowners ,pay. That is, increase propert taxes and reduce the fees for essential services,required by everyone. Water, liquid waste.solid waste.
In any case, zero increases in any fees is a must in this budget season and likely many more., as we possibly recover from COVID ….. as low income residents face the increased costs of carbon taxes to stay warm.
2019 statistical analysis of expenses. These types of rough analyses leave a lot to be desired and can be manipulated for political purposes as there is so much detail left out explaining the situations occurring that created these expenses.
I don’t know all the details but let’s look at the income of the Mayor of Courtenay as an example. A person who was also the Chairman of the RD. I’m not going to use numbers here just how these numbers were derived.
So as an municipal councilor he makes ‘C’ amount of money as determined by the councilors that sat in councils before him who polled other areas and tend to raise their compensation accordingly. As mayor his income with the increasing workload is then compensated by ‘M’ amount – so (C+M). And as it is Courtenay – The Greater, their budgets are larger that the other political units so the dollar units are greater. Hence the greater payouts(c). Being a mayor is a full time ‘part time’ job. So final tally 2019 = (Cc + Mc).
But he also invested even more ‘part time’ energy and time in being a regional district Board member (B), who as a Municipal member(m) gets paid ‘Bm’ amount. But he was also the Chair (C), putting in even more time, receiving more compensation for working in that capacity as well. So he gets paid for that too – amount ‘C’ . So (Bm+C).
As he was both Mayor and Chairperson he gets paid((Cc + Mc) plus (Bm+C) because he is holding down 4 ‘Part Time” jobs. This is why he was paid The Big Bucks (for a politician) in the Comatose Valley. Don’t forget that the CAOs and other senior bureaucrats of all these political units get paid more then mere politicians do and they are the real power in government.
Now to move this along. Holding down 4 jobs is a lot of work. Ask any poor person. After all, although he is only a ‘part time’ employee of the municipality and the regional district he still has a day job that he has to pay attention to, his business. And he had a new baby. Quality of life may have been slightly stretched. Rookie mistake. We all make them
This account is from 2019 which ended 13 months ago. In fact, in 2020 he did not stand for re-appointment to the RD Board of Directors which cut his ‘part time’ employment earnings substantially. As it should. But this factoid was never illuminated or alluded to in the article.
The devil is in the details making summaries such as this such useful political tools. Due to actual physical constraints such as size and reader attention span, and expense in transferring information into brief articles such as this well written and researched report, there is not the in depth detail on the finer points to make it anything but a rough thumbnail background paper to cough up quick details, even with the well placed caveats included in the opening paragraphs. And as you pointed out, without summaries such as this people wouldn’t even know this amount about the budgeting figures and process as as a general rule of thumb no one shows up to these processes except to complain after the fact.
It is a good summary, but at the end of the day, like a Fraser Institute report, it will be used as a blowtorch against ‘overpaid’ politicians and other bureaucrats on the public purse.
This is a complicated situation. There are so many reasons thing happen that are details that are left out of these summaries. Policing costs are high and they, like all others, want to see increased budgeting. Municipal costs are high due to Provincial downloading. Municipal equipment fleets of new, top of the line vehicles in Courtenay appear to be a large expense as well. Probably partial due to increased regulation costs by other government supported privatized, contract institutions such as Work Safe BC which ensure via regulation that costs will be just slightly higher than the market can bear. Engineering miscalculations and errors and omissions insurance of course add to the cost as well.
Just a few examples of things that drive up overall budgets which increase the work load of Councillors, Mayors, and Board members in our local governments. ‘Part time’ work loads that increasingly take more and more of the day and evenings to be dealt with by everybody’s favourite hobby horse target – the local politicians who gain incremental increases of compensation for increased perceived responsibilities. Perceived by the public at least.
Hmm rambling again grant. Well written article George but Common Sense dictates that it will be prostituted by those who are seek political axes to grind. The fact you had to use old data exacerbates the situation as it only provided a snapshot of what was happening in the Year 2019. A long time ago in politics and municipal spending. I hope many more people will use your summary as some kind of catalyst to stimulate greater interest in this year’s budgeting proceedings.
These are fair points, Grant. I hope the article will encourage more people to read their local governments’ financial reports and make up their own minds about whatever interests them.
But to clarify, we used the MOST CURRENT financial data publicly available. And the article did mention that Mayor Wells served as chair of the CVRD board in 2019.
Thanks for providing the revenues and population numbers for Naniamo and Campbell River. Nanaimo has more than twice the population of Courtenay/ Comox, while Campbell River has lower numbers . To be fair, they all share services with Regional governments, which can be complex.
The big difference between the single municipal governments , and the cost situation here with multiple ( CVRD, Courtenay ,Comox) , is that there are 3 administration providing services and they make a profit on water, liquid waste, solid waste. Essential services.
The revenue numbers show that it takes 50 percent more revenue per person, to provide services to the 43,000 residents of Courtenay, Comox, than 99,000 residents of Naniamo or the 35,000 of Campbell River.
I would hope that our elected representatives realize that a multiple local government system is unsustainable in cost for low income residents, in normal times.
We are entering our second year of COVID impacts on local jobs. This is the time to reduce budgets. No need for layoffs, which would make things worse. It is time to spend those excessive reserve funds and reduce the impact on the unemployed and those low income people still working. And seniors on minimal income.
Hi George ,
Thanks for this .
Lots of money tied up in reserve funds. Dead money.
My career was in Industry, where benchmarking, comparisons to competitors , for costs, quality, safety, environmental results, were continuous. Continual pressure to improve in all areas.
Unfortunately in local government, salaries are , benchmarked,compared to those municipalities who are best compensated, and leveraged upward.
The issue is that there about one third of the residents here, that can,t afford to fund huge reserve funds and the continual increases in the cost of services. Other communities have similar issues, and some have tent cities.
The consequences of COVID are yet to come. This is the time for our municipal and Regional representatives to recognize that their reserve funds are a huge burden on many in the Comox Valley.