(File photo)

Tax change triggers tricky debate on politicians’ pay

Like running the vacuum or taking long drives to nowhere, talking tax policy can be a great way to induce sleep.

But the upcoming loss of a tax break for elected officials across Canada has several Haida Gwaii councillors sitting up in their seats.

Starting Jan. 1, the federal government will cancel a long-standing tax exemption for provincial legislators, mayors, councillors, school trustees, regional district directors, and other elected officials.

Currently, instead of filing expenses, most of those elected officials pay no tax on a third of their pay.

The idea was that for most elected officials, a one-third tax break is easier to manage than having everyone file claims for the many expenses related to their civic duties.

But in 2017, the Liberal government decided to scrap the tax break, saying it was unfair because it “provides an advantage that other Canadians do not enjoy.”

The change opened a whole can of worms.

First, local representatives faced the question — should they get a raise to offset the loss and keep their pay unchanged?

Second, since the ever-uncomfortable issue was already on the table, are they due for a further raise anyway?

Shortly before B.C.’s local government elections in October, the outgoing Haida Gwaii school board voted yes to an offsetting pay raise.

Starting in 2019, the chair of the school board will receive $14,758, the vice-chair will receive $13,109, and trustees will each receive $12,000.

In Masset, where council pay hasn’t budged in over a decade, the outgoing mayor Andrew Merilees suggested back in May that it was high time for a budge.

“I think the time to do it is now, as we go into a new election trying to attract more people,” Merilees said, after suggesting a raise from $7,000 to $12,000 for mayor and a raise from $3,850 to $6,000 for councillors.

But when it came to a vote in September, Councillor Bret Johnston abstained, leaving the council without quorum.

“I really feel uncomfortable voting on my own raise,” Johnston said at the time.

After being re-elected in October, Johnston and his fellow councillors voted in November to send the issue to a special three-person citizen’s group. Besides a raise, the group will consider whether future council pay should automatically increase to cover inflation.

In Queen Charlotte, where the mayor is paid $8,174 and councillors $5,008 a year, the raise question fell to the newly elected council, who voted unanimously in November to leave the pay unchanged.

“I’m not really into it costing people in the community more,” said Councillor Lisa Pineault.

“I don’t think any of us are here for the money,” said Councillor Devin Rachar.

“I know it seems like a small amount, but it’s just a matter of tax creep,” said Councillor Jesse Embree.

But speaking from the audience at the close of the meeting, former mayor Carol Kulesha raised a counterpoint.

“I remember this from previous councils — we’re all very noble when we sit up there, especially in the beginning,” Kulesha said.

Echoing the discussion in Masset, Kulesha said the problem is magnified because councils are always unwilling to vote themselves a raise, so the pay goes unchanged for years until finally there is a sudden, extra-uncomfortable jump.

But Kulesha said there is another issue.

“You want to make sure that people who have very little money can also serve on council,” she said. “You have to keep that in mind.”

Kulesha suggested and Mayor Kris Olsen agreed that it would be a good idea, in the future, to send the issue to a select committee.

So far, the pay issue has not come up at Port Clements council, where the mayor is paid $5,000 and councillors $3,000 a year.

Chief Administrative Officer Ruby Decock did suggest putting it on the council’s agenda last year.

“The councillors volunteer a lot of their time,” Decock said.

However, the outgoing council declined to look at it, largely because of bad timing — Port Clements was in the midst of losing several forestry jobs.

Most recently, the issue came up at the December North Coast Regional District meeting, where the directors voted in favour of an offsetting pay raise, noting that the extra tax burden is just 20 cents for the average valued residential property.

The total pay for the entire 10-member board is $160,568.

While staff recommended the raise and it passed, the vote was not unanimous, with Director and Queen Charlotte Mayor Kris Olsen voting against.

“I don’t think it should be on the taxpayers,” he said.

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