FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Fort St. John city council moved to have an external review conducted on a proposed retirement transition allowance for mayor and council.

Council was presented an update to the City’s remuneration policy Monday that included a recommendation to add the retirement benefit following an internal review. Staff sought an allowance for the mayor “equivalent to the employer contribution under the Municipal Pension Plan” estimated at around $9,000 for 2022, according to the January 10th report to council.

Compensation for council is reviewed annually compared to peer municipalities and follows best practice recommendations from the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) remuneration guide. The retirement transition allowance proposal came after staff reviewed the UBCM guidelines.

“When considering options for retirement planning, we discovered that there were several communities engaged in some form of compensation in place of formal retirement contributions,” wrote Jessica Bowie, human resources officer for the City, in the report.

“The [UBCM] Guide recognizes that the lack of such a benefit may discourage some individuals from considering public office, and may become more of a barrier in future years, at least in some centres.”

Councillor Byron Stewart was quick to voice his concerns on the proposed allowance due to the timing and lack of transparency with the community.

“I don’t feel it’s appropriate for us as a council to be increasing our wage in any way during the term that we are in. If we are increasing wage, income, remuneration, for incoming council, the incoming mayor, I’m in favour of that,” said Stewart.

“Doing it now, I don’t see it as being transparent at all with our community and following an ethical standard that I find acceptable of increasing suddenly within our term.”

Councillor Lilia Hansen said her mindset is similar to Stewart’s as a city councillor.

“It’s an elected position, it was not one I was interviewed or hired for per se, so I don’t know if something that is similar to a retirement pension would be appropriate without it going before a committee of our community or an election issue,” said Hansen.

Councillor Gord Klassen said he appreciated Stewart’s comments and is for leaving the issue up to the annual review of council remuneration.

Mayor Lori Ackerman mentions being in favour of the benefits being available to all council members.

“I realize that council has made [the mayor] position full-time, but, honestly, some days council positions are full time,” Ackerman said.

“[New councillors] find themselves behind the eight ball and then trying to catch up, and it’s a real struggle. I think it’s responsible of us to prepare for a new council, to ensure that a new council is well looked after in today’s world.”

She says council has to work hard to get people to sit at the council table, and it’s even more difficult when the remuneration doesn’t reflect hours put into the position.

The City’s chief human resources officer, Jessica Bowie, says eight communities in B.C., including  Port Coquitlam, Surrey, Vancouver, New Westminster, Burnaby, Squamish and Spruce Grove, Alberta, have some type of retirement transition allowance in place.

“There are different ways to do that. Some do provide it every pay period, the equivalent amount. Others do it when they are not reelected, or they stepped down from office, and they’re paid in a lump sum at that time. So there are different ways that municipalities have offered this again,” said Bowie.

Bowie notes that the recommendation only mentions the mayor because she is the one full-time member of council, working 1800 per year, with a base salary of $89,130 under the current policy. The salary for councillors is $32,850 and they’re considered part-time.

Council’s remuneration is increased each year by the consumer price index for B.C. plus one per cent to a maximum of three per cent.

Bowie’s report to council states salaries “remain competitive” and “above average” compared to other communities.

The external review will also look at disability insurance for councillors as there is currently no coverage in place, which councillor Tony Zabinsky brought up.

“There is no long-term disability or short-term disability to us as councillors, and you got to keep in mind, when we go out representing the City, i.e. going to a PRRD meeting in Dawson Creek, if I am in an accident, we have no disability insurance for that.”

“The only coverage we have right now that I’m aware of would be our ICBC insurance, and there could be a fight with WCB because we don’t have WCB coverage,” said Zabinsky.

Councillor Jim Lequiere agreed with Zabinsky, stating, “if anything was to happen, you should be covered.”

“Then again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be when you’re travelling on council business because you’re always on council business, even when you’re at home. We all get texts and emails and phone calls.”

Council is expected to receive a report back before the end of the second quarter of 2022 following the external review.

The external review will cost the City $15,000.

The full report to council can be viewed below: