Greed Among Poverty

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Greed among poverty

On a recent Sunday, I sat in church and was reminded that at least 125 families in just one north end neighbourhood would have no Christmas this year unless the congregation dug deep into its own pockets and paid for gift baskets for the poor. I imagine this scenario was repeated in dozens of churches throughout the city of Saint John, given that 40 per cent of its population, some 30-thousand men, women, and children live at or below the poverty line. Many suffer from chronic unemployment or under employment or physical and mental health problems and all struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. We all know someone, a friend, a family member, a neighbour who struggles daily while Nero plays his fiddle.

And who is Nero? In this case, Nero is Don Darling, the Mayor of Saint John, who came into office just six months ago, promising to bring new prosperity to the city and its people. Don Darling, a man who claims to know poverty from his own childhood, is a highly successful businessman who, in another time and place, might have offered to serve as Mayor for just a token dollar a year. But alas, such munificence is very much lost to history. The Mayor claims to work 70 hours a week at his job and he wants to be paid for his efforts. Fair enough. One would think $57,000 a year would be plenty in Canada’s poorest city. But no, Darling voted himself a huge raise last night and will, in the future, be paid $74,000 annually. That he announced that he would give the first year’s increase to charity is simply politics…at its worst, a feigned attempt at taking the sting out of the insult.

Who in this city of poverty wouldn’t want a whopping 30 per cent salary increase? Of course, unlike politicians at the trough, we can’t just give ourselves what we want. Indeed, the average pay hike for non-unionized employees in Canada last year was a meagre 2.6 per cent. Yes, yes, we all know that CEO’s are the new robber barons, but the Mayor isn’t even the city’s chief executive officer. We have a city manager who takes care of day-to-day business and he’s paid something like $200,000 a year to do so. The Mayor is almost superfluous, something like a Lieutenant-Governor living off the avails of taxation while waiting to dress up in fancy clothes to chow down at another banquet.

Like Nero, Darling is not without his own plebeian council….in this case, 10 men and women who ran for office in May on the understanding that they would be paid $12,600 in salary and receive another $6,300 to cover expenses for their part-time efforts. Is it enough? No. The salary of a city councillor in Saint John is too low BUT given the financial burden in which this city finds itself through decades of mismanagement and piss poor leadership, the 50 PER CENT PAY RAISE the councillors have just given themselves (yes, not even 30 per cent was enough for them) is not only too high, but is a slap in the face of every hard-working citizen in the city of Saint John. The councillors will now receive (I hesitate to say ‘earn’), $29,500 annually for their part-time efforts at helping Saint John “grow and prosper.”

Ever alert to a public backlash, these “representatives of the people”….really?….don’t want you to think that they are feathering their own nests. No, that would never do. So instead they hired a management consulting firm….and paid them with your money….to bring forth the recommendations that they’ve just approved….a golden goose all wrapped up for Christmas. How could any politician refuse?

Well, three of them did. Councillors David Merrithew, Gary Sullivan and Greg Norton voted against the obscene salaries. That won’t, unfortunately, stop them from cashing their cheques but, at least they had the courage to go on record as saying they oppose such a generous pay hike for the job they do.

The Mayor and councillors who thought they deserved more will use the tired old argument that local politicians haven’t had a pay hike in 15 years so this one, no matter how generous, is simply making up for the past. It wouldn’t be a bad argument, except for the fact that most of the politicians who served during those years failed miserably in their jobs. As a municipality, Saint John is today worse off than at any time in its history, except perhaps for the few years after the Great Fire of 1877. Even then, local politicians turned the city around and restored it to greatness. Alas, it was not to last. A century later, the great decline began and there is no end in sight.

It is ironic, I think, that the Mayor and council chose the Christmas season to give themselves such an extravagant gift. Its not gold, frankincense, and myrrh…just, cold, hard cash. The real tragedy is not the money, but the lack of wisdom on city council. This Christmas, there are no wise men…or women…in sight.

This Sunday, as I help pack and deliver those gift baskets to the poor – surely even Christ will be shaking his head as he fruitlessly repeats his admonishment found in 1 Peter 5: 2-3:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

Doug James

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