Taxpayer dollars at work — sometimes every day of the week

Some taxpayers who hear about the salaries of municipal employees feel they earn too much for what they do.

Here's the other side of the story.

Chief administrative officer Debra Oakman

Chief administrative officer Debra Oakman

Some taxpayers who hear about the salaries of municipal employees feel they earn too much for what they do.

Here’s the other side of the story.

Municipalities and regional districts are required each year to release statements of financial information, which include the salaries of administrators.

Last year, a total of 45 staffers at the City of Courtenay, Town of Comox, Village of Cumberland and Comox Valley Regional District earned more than $75,000 each. Twelve exceeded the six-figure mark.

Topping the list was Courtenay administrator Sandy Gray, who made $175,112 plus $10,645 in expenses. Other six-figure earners in Courtenay were operational services director Kevin Lagan ($131,178), financial services director Tillie Manthey ($107,958), community services director Randy Wiwchar ($106,734) and planning services director Peter Crawford ($105,464).

Gray said his salary has often been published in a “one-sided perspective” in newspapers during his 35 years in local government. Without appreciating the complexities of city government, he feels the public can easily jump to conclusions about workloads. Council meetings, for instance, comprise about five per cent of Gray’s responsibilities.

As CAO of a “multi-facet organization,” Gray manages the city and reports to a board of directors (city council). He is literally accountable for everything.

Of critical importance is providing strategic direction to council and senior staff about a long-term vision in terms of the local economy, infrastructure, culture and social issues such as the proposed homeless shelter.

“It’s helping develop the strategic agenda that you want to achieve in the next five, 10, perhaps 20 years,” said Gray, who started his career at the Port Alberni Regional District, then worked in Nanaimo and Victoria before moving to the Valley nine years ago.

“Where do you want to position yourself as a community? My role is to make that happen. It’s a huge task. If you don’t have an idea where you want to go in those areas, you’ll never know if you got there.”

Other questions concern stream protection, and diversifying and expanding green areas.

“Environment was never an issue that was very big on the agenda 30 years ago,” said Gray, who has a political science degree. “This community is not unlike any other where you see the pitfalls in some of the decisions that were made by past governments.”

In terms of finance, the city manages about $120 million worth of assets such as water, fire suppression, roadways and traffic signals.

“There’s hundreds of pieces of infrastructure we run,” Gray said, noting the City operates on an annual budget of about $40 million.

Comox Valley Regional District

Chief administrative officer Debra Oakman, who earned $161,042 plus $11,287 in expenses last year, administers a $56-million annual budget.

An employee of the CVRD board, she is responsible for providing advice, developing and recommending policies, and for ensuring strong customer service and professional operations among staff. Her work week can range from 35 to 50 hours and from five to seven days, depending on the time of year.

A typical day, however, does not exist for Oakman, especially when confronted with emergencies such as flooding.

“It evolves from year to year,” she said of her job. “The only thing constant is change itself.”

Property services manager Kevin Lorette made $124,122, community services manager Ian Smith earned $115,401, and public affairs/information systems manager Leigh Carter made $110,461 plus expenses.

Like Oakman, Carter rarely experiences a typical day at the office.

Often acting as the district’s corporate spokesperson, Carter had 21 years experience at a senior management level in corporate communications, some with Metro Vancouver, before joining the CVRD in 2005. She also spent several years on both sides of the microphone or camera at Lower Mainland media outlets, including CKNW and BCTV.

“Because I have experience in managing people and departments, and because the CVRD is a fairly small organization, my expertise is efficiently used in leading various teams here, not just corporate communications,” said Carter, who has a bachelor of arts.

Over time, she said corporate communications has evolved from the ‘cake and balloons department’ to an area that keeps abreast of issues and develops strategies to proactively address issues.

Carter also oversees the information services (IT) and bylaw compliance departments, and advises the CVRD board and Comox Strathcona Regional Hospital District on various issues. In addition, she produces the district’s annual report, resident surveys, speaking notes for the board chair and material for briefings with cabinet ministers.

Town of Comox

Topping the six-figure mark were CAO Richard Kanigan at $118,299 plus $8,450 in expenses, and director of finance Donald Jacquest at $102,279.

Village of Cumberland

CAO Anja Nurvo, and corporate services manager Christine Mathews earned $108,736 and $92,334 respectively. Both have moved on to other municipalities.

The Comox Valley-raised David Durrant, who last year earned $86,527 as the Village’s manager of community services, was recently appointed acting CAO. He feels the Valley is a better place to live compared to 50-plus years ago in terms of infrastructure, parks and recreation, and other improvements “across the board,” thanks to the efforts of retired and serving municipal employees, mayors and councillors.

Durrant, whose job title has grown to include deputy administrator, has been a manager in local government for more than 30 years, 25 with the Town of Comox. He oversees planning, recreation, parks, public works and the Cumberland fire department. His usual work day from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. becomes longer with meetings. He is always on call.

“I love going to work every day,” said Durrant, who holds three designations from three different universities, including an advanced masters degree. Each designation pertains to local government operations. He continues to take courses and attend workshops, typically four of each in a year.

“Serving the public is a remarkable career,” Durrant said.

Gray concurs, noting the mutual respect and level of trust that is required between staff and elected officials.

“It’s about relationships,” Gray said. ”At the end of the day everybody feels like they’ve been heard.”