Friday, July 08, 2011
High government salaries create divide
Working ourselves up over the salaries of senior government employees and politicians is something of a tradition in B.C. What surprises me is how little the lather ever leads to.
The Vancouver Sun recently updated its excellent database listing B.C.’s highest paid civil servants, and the statistics highlight a worrying situation we’ve created in this province by paying corporate-level salaries to government employees.
Hundreds of people working for taxpayer-funded government bodies in B.C. now earn salaries of $200,000 or more. The last decade has seen nothing but big, big growth in pay, pensons, benefits and severance packages for government managers.
While average British Columbians have seen their weekly wages inch up a total of 26 per cent since 2001, to $830 a week, senior government managers - in provincial offices, Crown corporations, health services, school districts, universities - have in many cases seen their salaries double in that same period.
While the rest of us were belt-tightening and battening down the hatches over the last two years, the number of public servants earning more than $100,000 a year jumped 22 per cent. Just four per cent of B.C. adults have salaries at that level.
It’s the unseemliness of the thing that troubles me. Children go begging, people with developmental disabilities lose their homes, old people pile up in hospital. And the managers in public service repeatedly get double-digit increases.
Some are even landing bonuses because they’ve cut public services. Think about that. We’re paying extra to be provided with less.
We’ve heard many, many times that these increases are needed to keep B.C. competitive. Running a province/hospital/school district/city is complex. Doesn’t B.C. deserve the best? And don’t we nay-sayers comprehend that the private sector will snap these people up if we don’t compensate them well?
(Never underestimate the power of that argument to jack up salaries. Five managers with B.C. Hydro’s marketing arm saw their salaries skyrocket in 2008-09 after a firm on Wall Street started checking them out for hire. One guy’s salary more than tripled that year, to $629,200.)
I’m sure it must be very hard work to be in a senior government position. Then again, it was very hard work when I ran a small non-profit for a salary of $52,000. I’m not convinced that the public servants earning six-figure salaries are really working two times, four times, even 12 times harder and better than I was in those years.
In a perfect world, everybody would be paid richly for a job well done.
But we’re not talking about a perfect world here. We’re talking about a public system, funded by people who pool their tax money to pay for services that will benefit British Columbians overall. Where’s the rationale for compensating the managers of such a system at ever-increasing amounts while those paying the bills get by on ever-dwindling services?
Is all that expensive governance at least buying us a better province?
As Times Colonist columnist Paul Willcocks noted in a February piece, not really. Citing the most recent report from the government’s own Progress Board, Willcocks found B.C. has at best done a middling job of meeting economic goals in the last decade, and is failing outright on a number of social measures.
Productivity, personal income and exports per capita have all slipped since 2001. University graduation rates have stagnated.
On infant health, B.C. has fallen from second place to eighth in Canada. Where we were once in the middle of the pack on child poverty, we’re now routinely at the bottom, and have been for eight consecutive years.
And yet the generous pay raises continue. The gulf grows wider between average British Columbians and the government that purports to represent them. The big salaries beget other big increases all around them, because that’s how it works. Everyone wins except for the people paying for it.
This issue has no champions.
The pundits - public servants themselves, for the most part - generally come out on the side of higher public salaries, pointing to provinces where other pundits and governments are saying the same thing. Well-paid people compare themselves to other well-paid people, and not surprisingly conclude that everyone is worth every penny.
People in the public service - or wanting to be - certainly aren’t about to jump on any bandwagon aimed at slowing down salary increases. Even if a senior job isn’t in their future, wage inflation at the top has a ripple effect.
And you and I? We’ll just keep paying more for less. It’s what we do.