Christmas 2019 came early for regional councilors from the west coast, in the form of a pay rise that raised eyebrows around the coast.
Thanks to the Remuneration Authority, the chairman’s salary went up to $ 83,500 – a comfortable 3.5 percent increase.
But the one who was talking ratepayers was the pay raise for councilors, whose pay went from $ 36,000 to $ 51,000 a year.
Former mayor Tony Kokshoorn says district members do much more work than regional city council members.
Such a colossal wage increase (41 percent) has been rare – if not unheard of – since the ominous days of the mid-1980s when the Metalworkers Union rewarded the shots in wage negotiations.
In 1985, when the Muldoon era freeze ended, the minimum wage doubled to nearly $ 4.25 per hour.
But there has been nothing in recent years to match the new common course for a regional councilor on the west coast.
How did it come about?
In 2018, the Remuneration Authority established the way in which it determines the wage levels for mayors and regional chairmen of the council.
It came with a new wage scale, based on the geographic size and administrative responsibilities of a council rather than just population and spending, as in the past.
The authority also took into account the growing workload of government councils; the time drivers spend on work, and a comparison with the parliamentary salaries.
“When considering the different professions that might have some relativity with elected local members, we concluded that the only comparable activity was that of MP,” it said.
The authority then set fixed amounts for all presidents and mayors – and separate “governance pools” for each council, to be distributed among councilors.
The size of the pool is linked to the ranking of each board on the new index of the Remuneration Authority – and the number of seats around the board table is not taken into account. Nor does it give councilors the choice to accept the money.
“The governance pool will have no relationship whatsoever with the number of councilors … and must be fully distributed,” the authority said.
“We understand that there will be pressure in every community to keep rates low by paying councilors less, and we believe it is important that councils are protected against such pressure.”
In the case of the West Coast Regional Council, the Remuneration Authority has set the governance pool at $ 317,737.
And with only six councilors to share it (the lowest number of each council), the wage was $ 51,000 each, as soon as they chose to pay the deputy president $ 62,000.
For comparison, the Gray district councilors receive $ 23,338 according to the new formula – an increase of 3.3 percent. Their governance pool, set at $ 248,832, was lower than that of the regional council and had to be distributed in eight ways.
While the regional council estimates the full amount of the wage increase, the Gray District Council has underestimated the size of the increase and has a deficit of $ 56,000.
It has said that it may have to use rates to close the gap, or use resources that have been allocated for other purposes.
The former mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, who donated all his salary increases to a charity during his 15 years in the job, said the huge wage increase for regional councilors was out of work.
“District councilors do much more work than regional councilors and their duties are more demanding,” Kokshoorn said.
“For example, we would receive hundreds of submissions about our district plan – they would be lucky to get a few dozen.”
The west coast had struggled for the past decade, while most regions had recovered and the wage increases of council members, determined by Wellington, were inconsistent with the local economy, he said.
However, West Coast Cr Allan Birchfield Regional Council Chair said his council members worked just as hard, if not harder, than district councilors.
“We only have seven people for the entire west coast, so we are talking about a huge area compared to the Gray district, and it takes a lot more time and travel.”
Regional councilors also did a lot of work behind the scenes, in their communities, with 26 separate assessment districts and more recently freshwater groups.
“We are dealing with more and more work being stacked in regional councils by central government, and that affects councilors and staff,” Cr Birchfield said.
The Remuneration Authority said that some public criticism of the new wages could be expected.
“Usually … there are some negative comments in the media about the inappropriateness of the pay rise and sometimes how surprising it is that politicians are paid at all.
“People grizzle about their ‘useless’ councilors (but) often the same people are not willing to stand for election, sometimes for reasons related to pay and time, or because it is a public role that they recognize will be their private interrupt or take over life, “the authority said.