The storm the Town of Cochrane administrators saw blowing outside their windows earlier this week accompanied an internal one they had to weather, after reports started swirling on social media that the municipality's Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was going to receive a 40 per cent pay increase in 2023.
As often happens with the “news” on social media, it turned out to be a tale full of sound and fury that signified . . . not much.
But the facts didn’t get in the way of the backlash from some irate residents in the form of telephone calls, emails, and social media commentary aimed at both councillors and administration.
After sorting through all the math in an interview with the Town’s director of organizational strategy and culture Lia Almond, it turns out CAO Mike Derricott is in line for a raise of 3.5 per cent, in line with the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) adjustment being proposed for all non-unionized staff next year.
The Town quickly issued a clarification document on Nov. 1, after backlash over the 40 per cent figure hit the fan.
Almond said it was the loudest backlash she has seen for quite some time.
“I would say it’s been one of the more major events on social media this year,” the Town of Cochrane employee said.
The confusion arose around differing methods used by the Town to report salaries and benefits in different documents with different purposes, and different reporting rules.
In the Town's recently released draft Budget 2023 – 2025, under salaries and benefits for the CAO, it lists $287,310 as the proposed 2023 number. There is no figure listed there to compare to the previous year. The equivalent salary and benefit figure for 2022 was not made available until after the Town issued the clarification statement on Nov.1.
Before that, there was only the Town’s 2021 Public Sector Compensation Transparency Report February 25, 2022 – a document that has its own set of rules as to what it can and can’t report. That document reported the CAO’s salary and benefits for 2021, not 2022, which meant no apples-to-apples comparison was available.
Adding fuel to the communications challenge, the two documents referred to above used different rules to describe what a “benefit” is.
“I, in my wildest dreams, didn’t think someone would take our budget document and compare it to our salary grid,” Almond said.
Almond admitted that in the absence of any other way to compare the figures, miscommunication was understandable. She also agreed the Town could do a better job of communicating – in a clear, unambiguous way in ordinary language – how such things as publicly-funded salaries are reported. And she promised to do so.
“If there’s a way to present the information to the public better, I am all over that. We need to do a different job in that transparency report, to create understanding,” she said.
The correction documentation Almond issued on Nov. 1 shows Derricott's total salary and benefits rising from $277,310 in 2022 to a proposed $287,310 in 2023, for a 3.6 per cent increase.
To arrive at a true percentage increase in salary, Almond noted the benefits portion should be left out, as it encompasses “uncontrollable costs.” In salary alone, Derricott's raise next year works out to 3.5 per cent ($233,087 in 2022, and $241,245 in 2023).
The draft budget includes a 3.5 per cent COLA increase for all non-unionized staff, or about half of what inflation is running at.
When the dust settles and benefits are included, the top bureaucrat for the Town of Cochrane – the man Almond and many others report to – is getting one tenth of one per cent more of a raise than all non-unionized staff.
She said the CAO’s salary is in the 60th percentile – meaning that 40 per cent of comparable positions around the province are paid more, and 60 per cent are paid the same or less.
As to what taxpayers may feel about the final figure - $287,310 – that is still open to debate and “discussion” in the echo chamber known as social media.
Reached to discuss the topic, Mayor Jeff Genung said he has no qualms about defending what the Town of Cochrane pays their top administrator in what he reminded is the fastest growing town in Alberta.
“This is the reality in which we’re living, that we have to compensate individuals fairly for the work we’re asking them to do – the CAO is the highest paid position in the community and it has with it a ton of responsibilities,” he said.
Among those he listed were things like negotiating and managing union contacts, overseeing more than 200 employees, managing and facilitating a $30 million budget, and looking out for the services of the residents of Cochrane.
“It is unique, and the individuals who choose this as a profession are few and far between, and this is a very competitive market around the province,” Genung said.
He added that if the Town paid less, he’s not sure they’d attract someone with the expertise they want or need.
The mayor said that in his experience, once people get off social media and hear the context, they better understand the numbers.
And as a result, he is a little concerned about having council come into the upcoming budget deliberations with an open mind. After much internal reflection this week, he said the way these things are reported has to change.
”We won’t do this to ourselves again,” he said.