Manitoba

Winnipeg city councillor pitches 50 per cent hike for ward office budgets

A high rate of staff turnover in Winnipeg city councillors' offices has led one councillor to propose that a significant hike in ward allowances and perks is needed to stem the tide.

Turnover rate of councillors' assistants more than 50 per cent since 2018 election, Coun. Devi Sharma says

Coun. Devi Sharma says Winnipeg is the only major municipality in Canada that does not provide pension benefits to office staff. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

A high rate of staff turnover in Winnipeg city councillors' offices has led one councillor to propose that a significant hike in ward allowances and perks is needed to stem the tide. 

Coun. Devi Sharma has tabled a motion that could see the budgets of the city's 15 ward offices increased by more than 50 per cent, plus the city provide pension benefits to assistants on its own dime.

Currently, councillors receive an annual budget of just under $85,000 out of which they must pay their office expenses and the salaries of their assistants. Sharma has proposed each ward be given an annual $45,000 boost that would be dedicated exclusively to staff salaries.

"It's not a pleasurable discussion to have, but it's necessary," Sharma told colleagues on the governance committee last week.

"We need resources so we can serve the citizens we represent appropriately and fairly." 

Turnover of councillor assistants in ward offices since the October 2018 election has been more than 50 per cent, Sharma said, adding some offices have seen up to four assistants come and go in that time. 

It has resulted in declining service to citizens, who are seeking increased engagement with council offices due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the growth of social media. It also means a lot of costly retraining, Sharma said. 

The budget increase would cost $675,000 more per year, exclusive of pensions and a request for the city provide an amount of corporate communications support to the wards as well. 

A cross-jurisdictional review of other major cities in Canada done by city administrators shows Winnipeg is the only one which does not provide council office staff pension benefits. 

Winnipeg's 2020 per-capita spending on ward office budgets was $1.66. The average ward serves more than 50,000 citizens.

In comparison, the review shows a Manitoba MLA's office spends $5.81 per capita to serve an average of just under 24,000 citizens per riding. An MLA received just under $90,000 in 2020 for an office budget, plus more than $52,000 to allocate for staff, plus pension benefits. 

Edmonton, which has 12 council wards, provides an annual office budget of nearly $177,000 to each, plus staff pension benefits. Each of Calgary's 14 wards is allocated $280,900 a year, plus the city makes staff RRSP contributions to the tune of 7.5 per cent of base salary. 

Sharma's motion, which passed through the executive policy committee on Wednesday, calls for the increases to be examined for the council budget next year.

Mayor Brian Bowman was the lone dissenting vote on EPC but did not provide reasons why. 

Coun. Scott Gillingham, the city's finance chair, said he had reservations about the proposal but didn't elaborate. 

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