British Columbia

Low pay a barrier to getting young people to run for city council, say millennial politicians

As B.C. cities debate how much to pay mayors and councillors in advance of new federal tax rules, some millennial politicians worry low wages are preventing other young people from getting involved in politics.

B.C. cities debating how much to pay mayors and councillors ahead of fall elections and new tax rules

Homemade signs were part of Prince George, B.C. Councillor Jillian Merrick's efforts to keep the cost of her 2014 campaign down. (Jillian Merrick)

As B.C. cities decide how much to pay mayors and councillors in advance of new federal tax rules, some millennial politicians say low wages are discouraging young people from getting involved in politics.

In Prince George Monday, councillors voted against a recommended wage increase for themselves, which would have been the first substantial addition to their take-home pay since 2010.

"This is not my full-time job," said Councillor Terri McConnachie in voting against the raise. "This is my privilege."

However, Councillor Jillian Merrick, who is 32, warned low wages may be a barrier to getting more young people to run in October's municipal elections.

Last week, Merrick announced she would not be running again, in part so she can focus on her career. Right now, she works as a diversification officer at Barkerville Historic Town.

"I'm in my 30s, and that's kind of the time a lot of people start to pay off their student loans, start to advance their careers, and start their families," she told CBC Daybreak Northhost Carolina de Ryk. 

Merrick said because council work comes with few benefits, it can be difficult for people other than those with established careers or in retirement to be effective politicians, leading to a lack of proper representation.

Listen to the full interview with Jillian Merrick:

That view was echoed by Charlie Rensby, a 26-year-old councillor in the village of Burns Lake.

"I take home $200 every two weeks for my council remuneration," he said. "When I go out of town for meetings I get $100 a day, but... each day of work I miss at my day job I lose out on a potential $400."

Tax exemptions lifted

The issue of pay for municipal politicians has been debated across the country since the federal government announced new tax rules coming in January.

Currently, civic leaders don't pay taxes on one-third of their incomes, an exemption meant to cover the expense of public service work. That exemption will be lifted in 2019.

On Monday, Prince George councillors voted to raise their wages from $32,936 to $37,466 in order to maintain their current take-home pay. However, they voted against a second raise that would have increased their salary to $39,764.

That increase was recommended by an outside committee of citizens in order to keep wages in-line with other B.C. municipalities. 

Only Merrick voted in favour, saying it would make council pay meet the city's living wage, and help encourage more economic diversity among candidates.

Higher salaries reduce diversity

However, Nicholas Carnes, a public policy researcher and assistant professor at Duke University in the United States said increasing the salaries of politicians may actually decrease that diversity.

Carnes researched the impact salary size has on the number of working-class people who enter politics in the United States. He found higher wages lead to more competitive campaigns, which favour people who are economically advantaged.

Listen to the full interview with Nicholas Carnes:

"I think about it this way," he said. "If you offered me $100 to win [a marathon] I would say, 'I can't do it.'"

"But if you offered $100,000... I'm still not going to be able to win the race, but now you've just attracted a bunch of elite runners from all over the country...It entices more of the people who already run into the mix." ​

With files from Nicole Oud.

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Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at You can also send encrypted messages using Signal or iMessage to 250.552.2058.