Taxpayers and watchdogs often focus their attention on the top of the government salary spectrum. Government executives are increasingly overpaid, especially at the municipal and regional district level. And the problem is growing.
But it's not just the top end that is out of control. Taxpayers are overpaying for labour throughout the system.
The City of Burnaby is looking for a bartender. B.C.'s minimum wage is $10.25 per hour but liquor servers can legally be paid as little as $9 per hour, plus tips (where they make their real living). Ignoring the bizarre idea that property taxpayers have a bartender on the payroll, Burnaby should be able to get a suitable swill slosher for $10.25 per hour, tops.
But this is government - where your hard-earned money gets spent freely. Instead, Burnaby is offering its future bartender $13.65 per hour and 12 per cent cash-in-lieu of benefits, plus tips. That's $15.29 per hour plus tips, for a job that could be filled for 70 per cent less.
Actually, come to think of it, this waste of money could drive you to drink, so hiring a bartender might come in handy.
Richmond is even worse, currently advertising for a city arena concession worker. Starting salary: $16.98 per hour plus 12 per cent for benefits. That's $19.02 per hour for a job that is usually minimum wage.
At that rate, Richmond will never fulfill the vision it lays out in the top of the ad -- to be "the most appealing, livable and well-managed community in Canada." Well-managed communities simply don't overpay for jobs by 88 per cent.
In Kelowna, the city was offering new lifeguards $20.95 plus 14 per cent in lieu of benefits -- a total of $23.88 per hour. The same lifeguard job at the Kelowna YMCA-YWCA pays $14.50 per hour. Kelowna taxpayers are overpaying the Y by 65 per cent.
These examples are repeated over and over again in city halls. There is hope, but it takes political will.
Penticton is a great example. In 2010, Penticton's core services review revealed the city was overpaying lifeguards and park maintenance staff. City lifeguards made $22.80 per hour, while private pool lifeguards made $14.50. Parks staff also made $22.80 per hour, compared to $14 in the private sector.
When the city's CUPE contract came up for negotiation, Penticton managed to negotiate down the starting ratefor these positions, and jail guards, by nearly $5 per hour. While not quite at private sector levels, it's a big step forward. Not coincidentally, Penticton has frozen its property tax rates for three straight years.
The provincial government could help property taxpayers by bringing in a Compensation Equity Act, which would make it illegal to pay a government employee more than they could earn in the private sector for the same job. Instead, city halls would have to use a market-based model.
The Act could also create a group of experts able to negotiate down some of these government union increases on behalf of taxpayers, like Penticton did.
The system as it stands now doesn't work for taxpayers - we overpay for labour and it shows on our annual property tax bill. It's time to try something different.