Edmonton mayor, councillors asked to freeze salaries for 2 years

An independent committee is calling for Edmonton city councillors and the mayor to freeze their salaries for the next two years as the city navigates the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Independent committee breaks with precedent on indexed salary

An independent review committee recommends city councillors freeze their salary for the next two years, breaking with long-standing precedent that indexes pay to changes in Alberta's average weekly earnings. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

An independent committee is calling for Edmonton city councillors and the mayor to freeze their salaries for the next two years as the city navigates the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's a departure from the precedent set in 2006, when a compensation committee first recommended council tie its salary to average weekly earnings in Alberta. 

The recommendations, headed before council Monday, come as the pandemic continues to generate economic uncertainty across Edmonton, amid soaring unemployment and steep drops in GDP outlooks. 

More than 100,000 people were looking for work in the city last month, nearly double last year's numbers, according to the latest Statistics Canada data. 

"Given the current economic climate and significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city, the committee recommends no increase to Council's salary," the report said.

The mayor's annual salary is currently set at $206,511 while councillors receive $116,672. Under the committee's recommendations, those salaries would be frozen for the next two years, then adjusted to weekly earnings again in 2023. 

City council has formed an independent compensation committee five times since 1999, with their recommendations typically adopted for the next council term to prevent sitting politicians from voting on their own salary. 

But this committee recommends the salary freeze come into effect in January, before the October 2021 municipal election, because of the current state of the economy. 

No case for increase, councillor says

At the outset of the pandemic, significant job losses among lower-wage workers drove up weekly earnings in Alberta. If mayor and council salaries were calculated based on those numbers, it would result in roughly a three to five per cent pay increase in 2021, according to the committee's report.

"I really appreciate that they have acknowledged that would not at all be reasonable, because I can't imagine any member of council would support, even under an independent formula-based system, getting a wage increase going into 2021," said Coun. Andrew Knack. 

"I think there'd be no case to be made for an increase at this time." 

Knack said the committee's work, which first convened in April, underlines the importance of an independent review at a time when the provincial and federal governments grapple with politically-charged debates over compensation.

Opposition MLAs accused the Alberta government of setting the stage for public sector wage rollbacks last August when the governing UCP voted to axe MLA pay by five per cent and cut the Premier's salary by 10 per cent. Meanwhile, Premier Jason Kenney confirmed that effective Monday, government political staffers would take a seven per cent pay cut. 

At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was put under pressure to cancel automatic MP salary increases that came into effect on April 1 against the backdrop of the pandemic. 

"It's always political. Put it in the hands of an independent body like we've done and let them make a non-political recommendation," Knack said. 

Raise cap on transition pay, freeze car allowance, committee says

Long-serving members of council would get a bump in transition allowance when they leave office if the committee's recommendations are adopted Monday.

Councillors currently receive three weeks of transition pay for every year in office, up to a maximum of 36 weeks — equivalent to 12 years service. The committee suggests council increase that to 39 weeks, noting other municipalities cap transition allowances between 36 and 52 weeks. 

While Coun. Jon Dziadyk supports the salary freeze, he says he'll be pressing the committee to further explain changes to transition pay. 

"It's important to have some kind of transition allowance as part of the overall compensation, but I don't know if it needs to be for so many months," he said. "I didn't see that as being necessary." 

Among the other recommendations, the committee is calling for the current $500 annual health spending account, for costs not covered by insurance, to be replaced by a $3,600 flexible spending plan for the mayor and council.

The report says the projected $40,300 annual budget increase would bring the plan "up to market levels and help to attract a diverse range of candidates to council." 

The report is also recommending the monthly vehicle allowance — $601 for councillors and $1,205 for the mayor — be frozen indefinitely, saying that "the costs of operating a vehicle has not changed and is not expected to change materially."

Given the current economic uncertainty, the committee says city council should consider striking an interim compensation review in four years, rather than the typical eight-year cycle. 


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