Greg NesteroffWest Kootenay Advertiser
How much do local governments spend on salaries? The West Kootenay Advertiser looked at the payrolls of local cities and regional districts as well as school districts — although direct comparisons are difficult because not all bodies provide the same services.
The data comes from annual statements of financial information each organization is required to file, which is usually available on their websites.
From those documents, we extracted the total payrolls including expenses, the number of employees making over $75,000 and $100,000, and the division of the payroll above or below the $75,000 mark.
We then compared the figures to the populations served and also came up with lists of each body’s top five earners, and rounded it out with figures for other organizations in the Kootenays and BC.
WEST KOOTENAY CITIES SHELL OUT MILLIONS IN SALARIES
The City of Nelson had the highest payroll among West Kootenay’s four largest cities in 2013 as well as the largest number of high earners, but its mayor insists there was good value for the money.
The city’s salaries totalled $9.6 million, a per capita rate of $942 that was also higher than Castlegar, Trail, or Grand Forks. It had 37 employees making over $75,000 and 16 making over $100,000, more than twice as many as neighbouring cities.
The difference can largely be attributed to Nelson Hydro and the city’s professional fire department. Nelson is the only municipality in BC that generates its own electricity, which requires a high outlay of capital and staffing — four of the city’s top five earners last year worked for the electrical utility, with wages of up to $158,632, much of it paid in overtime.
But Mayor John Dooley said Nelson Hydro is still a net benefit to the city. “It’s a major revenue generator,” he said. “Plus they’re involved in other initiatives such as broadband.”
The utility produces about half the power used by customers in its service area, which stretches beyond city limits, and buys the rest from FortisBC. It’s expected to put about $3.1 million into city coffers this year.
Dooley also said a professional fire department is an asset considering the community’s condensed downtown core and many older buildings.
“It’s important to have that kind of protection. It’s also been real asset over the last number of years for the FireSmart program, cleaning up the perimeter of the community to protect it from wildfires.”
The department consists of a chief, assistant chief, fire prevention officer, two shift captains, six firefighters, and secretary-dispatcher, plus 21 on-call auxiliaries.
Wages for the 11 unionized members under their last contract, which expired in 2011, started at $53,600 for a probationary firefighter while the assistant chief last year made $101,719 and the chief, who is not in the union, earned $107,357.
Lorne West, vice-president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1343, said Nelson’s firefighters are the lowest paid in BC, earning about six per cent less than their counterparts — even after an arbitrator granted them a 24.5 per cent increase retroactive to the start of 2008.
He also said Nelson has “disproportionately” funded its fire service as a percentage of the city budget. (This year it accounts for nine per cent.)
“Our view is the department should be a little larger, closer to Trail,” he said. “My expectation is the city is going to do something to correct that imbalance, but we’ll see to what degree it gets corrected.”
Nelson isn’t unique in having a professional fire department — Dawson Creek, Kitimat, and Revelstoke are just some of the smaller BC centres that also have them — but by historical quirk, Nelson is the only interior municipality with its own police force.
Municipal police salaries are kept separate on civic payrolls, but in 2011, the average cost per officer was $177,000, a per capita rate of $328. In 2012, wages ranged from $62,000 for a probationary officer to $102,467 for a sergeant. In 2013, staffing was budgeted at $2.78 million, including salary and benefits.
Police chief Wayne Holland has said the department’s proportional share of the city budget is lower than other similar-sized BC communities while the case-load burden per officer is higher.
Dooley said the primary advantage of a municipal police department is that it lets the city set priorities and police the community as it sees fit.
As for hiring practices generally, he said there is a “competitive environment for qualified people” and they try to keep salaries in line with the rest of the province.
“It’s important to pay fair compensation to any person who works for the municipality and critical at the senior management level that we have experienced, innovative people looking to generate revenue and save taxpayer money.”
Dooley also said his preference is to promote from within — both the fire chief and city manager moved up to their current positions — although the city has sometimes hired from outside, such as the police chief, who came from Vancouver, and its new director of public works, who is from Saskatchewan.
Like Nelson, Grand Forks has its own electrical utility. The city buys electricity wholesale from FortisBC, allowing it to both make a profit and give a two per cent rate advantage to residents. Two of the city’s top five earners last year worked in the electrical department.
“Our electrical system is staffed by our own trained professionals and maintenance and replacement reserves are heaLthy,” Mayor Brian Taylor said.
“Having control of our own poles and wires has allowed us to piggy-back fibre optics on our poles and earned revenue that has allowed the city to keep reserves robust and contribute a portion of electrical revenue to other city expenses.”
Taylor said the city has been asked repeatedly to consider selling its system — as Kelowna recently did to FortisBC — but community control “is working very well for the city now and as we struggle with sustainability it may be even more important in the future.”
TRAIL HAS REGION’S TOP EARNER
By far the highest paid civic employee in West Kootenay last year was Trail city manager David Perehudoff at nearly $226,000, including about $6,500 in expenses.
Perehudoff, who is both a certified general and certified public accountant, doubles as the city’s financial administrator, and at 17 years has been in his role longer than any of his local contemporaries.
Mayor Dieter Bogs explained Perehudoff’s base salary is $180,000 per year and council has stipulated that it won’t pay out more than a year’s worth of vacation if he leaves at the end of his contract or retires.
Bogs said Perehudoff’s workload has been “significant” for several years due to a number of projects, including downtown revitalization, a proposed boundary expansion, acquisition of the airport, and planned utility and pedestrian bridge.
Consequently, he hasn’t been able to take most of his holidays and has been paid out annually.
Bogs said nearly all communities Trail’s size have two people doing the jobs of administrator and treasurer, and Perehudoff’s ability to wear both hats saves the city an estimated $150,000 per year.
“Many communities have been after David during the last six to seven years as he is one of the most experienced and capable [administrators] in the business and Trail council unanimously did not want to lose him and particularly at this time.”
Trail’s overall payroll of $5.57 million in 2013 was about $1.8 million higher than Castlegar’s, even though it has a slightly smaller population.
Bogs said that’s because Trail is responsible for its own recreation facilities, whereas Castlegar’s are operated through the regional district.
Trail’s status as a commercial, recreational and service hub for Greater Trail’s population of just under 20,000 represents an additional cost to the city, he said.
Facilities such as the Memorial Centre and aquatic centre serve a much larger population and require additional staff.
Some of Trail’s neighbouring communities help pay for the city’s recreation facilities, allowing citizens to access services at the same rates. However, residents of Rossland and the Beaver Valley, where such agreements no longer exist, pay higher user fees at Trail’s facilities.
Bogs said Trail’s recreation department represents almost $1 million in salaries, about half of which is recouped from its neighbours.
“Trail is also a more challenging community — and particularly the West Trail side — from a utility servicing perspective,” Bogs said. “The public works department is significantly larger than the one in our neighbouring community.”
Per capita, Castlegar’s costs were among the lowest in the region at $484 last year. “We’re on the thin side,” Mayor Lawrence Chernoff said of administrative salaries. “We operate a lean machine and it seems to work well.”
Although Nelson’s salary costs were the highest in the region, they paled in comparison to Kitimat (population 8,335) which had a payroll of over $10 million and per capita costs of $1,204. The district had 48 employees earning $75,000 per year or more and 22 making $100,000 or more, including two over $200,000.
While larger municipalities such as Langley and Abbotsford had much higher overall payrolls, their per capita costs were lower, both falling in the $360 range.
— With files from Guy Bertrand, Jim Sinclair, and Craig Lindsay