More pay hikes, still no accountability, at city

City of Prince George city manager Kathleen Soltis was given double the wage increase the city's unionized employees and most of the senior management team received in 2019, according to the city's recently released statements of financial information.

While CUPE workers and eight of the nine other senior managers received wage increases of 1.75 per cent last year, Soltis enjoyed a 3.5 per cent boost, taking her annual base pay to $265,725.35.

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That 2019 increase for Soltis was agreed to by Prince George city council when they renewed her contract on Jan. 1, 2018, the city's senior communications officer Michael Kellett said in a written response to questions from The Citizen.

Furthermore, the 2019 increase was the final piece of a multi-year plan to bring the city manager's wage up to $265,000 per year, Kellett added in his e-mail response. A 2017 consultant's report urged Prince George city council to raise the city manager's pay by 15 per cent so it would be more in line with comparative cities like Kelowna, Kamloops and Nanaimo. The same report mentioned but chose to ignore the fact that Prince George's city manager receives a vehicle allowance (unlike any other city manager outside of the Lower Mainland), the above-average overtime policy (two weeks off in lieu of pay to attend evening meetings) and the "more generous than the median" vacation policy (six weeks over and above the two weeks overtime policy).

Meanwhile, vacation payouts, particularly for the city manager and senior staff, continue to spiral out of control.

On top of her base pay, Soltis received a vacation payout of $12,037.96 in 2019. Ian Wells, the general manager of planning and development, was given a $11,305.06 vacation payout last year while Rae-Ann Emery, director of human resources, took home a $9,358.67 vacation payout and Walter Babicz, general manager of administrative services, saw $9,066.95 in vacation pay, all over and above their annual salaries.

To put those numbers in a broader context, those four individuals received a total vacation payout of $41,768.64. The city's total vacation payout in 2019 for all 1,014 of its employees was $508,013.15. In other words, four people (who just happen to hold senior leadership positions) representing 0.4 per cent of the city workforce took home 8.2 per cent of the total vacation payout.

All of this comes on the heels of yet another multi-million dollar cost overrun on a city project, this time the new city parkade, currently $5.3 million over budget. City council was informed back in June that the new fire hall is $2 million over budget. Before that came the whopping $7 million cost overrun to build a new bridge over Haggith Creek and another 4.5 per cent increase in property taxes, well above the annual inflation rate.

What is Prince George city council doing about it?

Other than being concerned, not much.

"I'm so unhappy with these cost overruns," veteran city councillor Brian Skakun said Monday night. "This can't keep happening."

"It doesn't sit well," added rookie city councillor Cori Ramsay.

"This is a significant overrun – again," chimed in Coun. Terri McConnachie. "I know we've discussed this in the past. We're here to provide oversight. Moving forward, there has to be more communication."

"How can I believe, when we get these reports, that it will be done on budget?" asked Coun. Kyle Sampson.

At least these four councillors are speaking up, in contrast to the deafening silence from Mayor Lyn Hall and the other four city councillors.

Sadly, speaking up but doing nothing to fix the underlying problem has become a constant theme.

Eighteen months ago, when council fretted about the Haggith Creek bridge mess, McConnachie called the situation "a debacle" and "simply unacceptable."

“In my opinion, somebody’s got to be held responsible,” Skakun thundered. “We are held responsible every four years and in this case there is obviously some mistakes made.”

Not only has no one ever been held responsible for that specific fiasco, the city refused to pursue legal avenues to recover costs.

Furthermore, Adam Homes, the city's director of infrastructure services, received a six per cent pay raise last year, Kellett confirmed in his email - the 1.75 per cent everyone else received, plus a "step increase" into the top level of the pay structure for city directors.

The time for hand wringing and stern words is long since past. 

If Prince George city councillors are truly upset about this growing list of cost overruns, they have the authority to do something about it, starting with holding the city manager and senior staff truly accountable for repeated errors costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

— Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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