The Comox Valley Regional District board has approved the Comox Valley Economic Development Society’s million-dollar budget for 2012, with $356,597 going towards wages, not including benefits and training.
Some members of the public have demanded that CVEDS executive director John Watson’s salary — along with travel expenses and outcomes of destination marketing trips — be released as public information.
“I think it’s an accountable income,” said Marty Douglas, a former board member of the now-defunct Comox Valley Tourism. “I think his salary should be transparent because it’s public funds. But it’s also justifiable.”
The CVEDS board of directors, however, has decided to stick with its policy of not releasing individual wages, board president Murray Presley said.
Along with a $740,000 operating grant, the CVRD is contributing $113,250 towards visitor information centre services for April 1—Dec. 31 and $37,750 for the Comox Valley and Cumberland Chambers of Commerce for the Jan. 1—March 31 quarter. There is also $20,000 carried forward from 2011 for startup assistance for the opening of the new visitor centre at the highway interchange, and a $90,000 provision for unanticipated property taxes and building utilities.
While it outweighs CVEDS’ 2011 requisition, Presley notes the increase is not for the operating budget.
“It wasn’t any extra money for John or other employees,” he said.
Aside from Watson, CVEDS staff consists of marketing and communications manager Lara Greasley, administrative assistant Shelley Clarke, business development manager Geoff Crawford, events co-ordinator Jamie Eldstrom and tourism administrator Jennifer Evans, who is no longer listed on the website. Their earnings, if divided into $356,597, equals an average of nearly $60,000 per employee.
Watson has not disclosed his salary. A Freedom of Information request to the province was referred to the district, which did not provide salary information, which is protected under a section of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Douglas suggests Watson’s salary is a six-figure average of the top earners at the CVRD and Valley municipalities.
“He’s running a million-dollar corporation,” Douglas said. “We probably get good value for the money spent. Do I think they could spend money in other areas? Of course. (But) I think we’re better served by EDS than a bunch of bureaucrats running it.”
He feels local councils and the CVRD are complicit because board members are required to report back. He adds, however, that CVEDS has come a long way since the days of meeting at Courtenay House.
“It was a non-entity,” Douglas said. “Overall, economic development has done good work for the Comox Valley.”
Bronco Moncrief, a former mayor and councillor in Cumberland who serves on the CVEDS board, leans towards public money being open but does not think the CVEDS executive “would go overboard.” He concurs with Douglas that the organization has improved over the years.
“I think John’s worth every nickel he gets,” Moncrief said.
The newly-formed Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation will release information on wages and benefits at the end of the year, says chief executive officer Susan Cudahy, who earns about $135,000 a year with potential for a performance bonus not exceeding 10 per cent of her salary.
“We are open with our budgets and our staff are union employees so the positions are part of a collective bargaining agreement,” Cudahy said by email.
The non-profit CVEDS formed in 1988. The board consists of elected officials, directors from the private sector and the past-president. Several years ago CVEDS took over responsibility of destination marketing from Comox Valley Tourism.
The society helps businesses expand and works with potential investors and entrepreneurs to realize “why there is no better place to be,” its website states. It is audited by Meyers Norris Penny, and mandated by the CVRD to complete a review/update of its economic development strategy by March 31, 2013.
”They give us money but they expect us to do something with it,” Presley said.
While the district does not specify how the money is spent, CVEDS needs to concentrate its efforts on specific things. In recent years, for instance, Presley said it spent about 30 per cent of its time on the farm community. Over the last year, its focus switched to the visitor centre.
“Now we have time to concentrate on other parts: tourism, attracting new businesses into the community,” Presley said, noting a recent WestJet-sponsored delegation from Edmonton. “These are businessmen who are looking for opportunities out here. We’ve had this ongoing back and forth between Edmonton and Calgary. It certainly has driven economic development in the Comox Valley, the connection with WestJet.”
He considers other local economic drivers to be the air base, the expanded civilian terminal at the airport and Mount Washington.
Another significant development is the recent signing of an Agreement In Principle — the critical piece towards a final settlement in K’ómoks First Nation treaty negotiations. Presley said the band is on the verge of securing large chunks of property, which can be developed as they see fit and which is not governed by the Regional Growth Strategy.
“I can see a lot more development taking place on First Nations land, and that’s a real economic benefit to the Valley,” Presley said, noting board members Melinda Knox and Richard Hardy are both First Nation.
“Cultivating the potential between First Nations, Mount Washington, the civilian air terminal and destination marketing — it all ties in with economic development’s effort to drive people to the Valley and enticing them to stay longer, if not permanently.”