Politicians feeding greedily at public trough by Jon Ferry

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Politicians feeding greedily at public trough

by Jon Ferry

September 28, 2011

The Province

Mayors and councillors from across the province seem to be having a grand old time in Vancouver this week for their annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. It's undoubtedly good for the downtown hotel and beverage trade.

But, given the worrying economy, I think they should have stayed home this year and held their meetings by teleconference, saving a ton of taxpayers' money.

This, of course, is not how outgoing UBCM president Barbara Steele sees it. The Surrey councillor told me Tuesday she didn't know what the convention budget was, but said the sessions have been jam-packed.

Steele added it was important for local politicians to network and share information: "What better place to do it once a year than face to face with everybody?"

I guess it all depends on whether you're paying taxes or spending them.

North Vancouver mom Sue Lakes Cook, for example, agrees with me that the real problem with B.C. municipal governments is they're living high off the hog, while many taxpayers are not. And I agree with her we need a municipal ombudsman to protect us from them.

Cook earns $13 hourly as a customer service rep. And she's appalled at the "insane" salaries enjoyed by employees of her local municipality, the City of North Vancouver, with many earning at least double those of the folks they're supposed to be serving.

Cook is also angry at the way city staff keep fobbing her off when she queries them about expenditures. She's now asked to go before Mayor Darrell Mussatto and council to get those questions answered. And Mussatto promised Tuesday to give her that chance.

Cook, in fact, would have been an ideal speaker at the UBCM convention — not simply because her dad was a longtime North Vancouver District councillor, but because she clearly knows the value of a dollar.

"I'm probably the only person in the whole world who actually gets the budget and goes through it page by page," Cook told me, noting city staff insisted on mailing her a copy this year, at a cost of $9. Indeed, on postage alone, the city spent almost $60,000 last year.

The City of North Vancouver is the smallest of the three North Shore municipalities. But Cook points out it has 480 employees, with 143 of them making $75,000 a year or more.

City manager Ken Tollstam made $254,000 last year. And Mussatto earned $119,000, $91,000 as mayor and $28,000 as a Metro Vancouver director.

Mussatto told me that city staff salaries were in line with those of the other Metro Vancouver municipalities. However, he said, the city had many long-serving staff, which "does push up the bill."

Cook said she's particularly concerned about the hefty salaries of the 66 employees in the fire department, given there were just 84 fires to fight last year. She knows of two young firefighters who made $90,000 and $93,000, respectively. Fire Chief Barrie Penman made $171,000.

But when she asked for the department's total wages and expenses, she was told the information "was not routinely or readily available."

"I guess the thing that annoys me the most is just the way they play with me with these answers," she said. "They have absolutely no respect at all . . . I know who the serf is, and it's not those folks at city hall."

I agree with most of what Cook has to say about city hall secrecy, arrogance and unsupportably high salaries, pensions and other benefits. They're shaping up to be major issues in the coming civic elections. And that's long overdue.

jferry@theprovince.com

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[The QuesnelCaribooSentinel would like to thank Jon Ferry and the Province newspaper for their kind permission to reprint this article. Ed.]