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TransLink CEO set to make a mint compared to counterparts

September 04, 2019
TransLink CEO set to make a mint compared to counterparts

This column was originally published in The Province Newspaper on August 28th, 2019

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond is making $406,000 annually, and the board has expanded the salary range to top out at $517,000 per year.

That is more than the prime minister of Canada is paid. It’s between five and seven times more than the median total household income for people living in Vancouver.

It’s a lot of money. So the question is: Is that paycheque justified?

Here’s TransLink’s answer:

“This process here is very common to what companies would do when they’re determining their executive compensation plan — they would essentially look at benchmarks, which are companies sort of in the same industry and positions within the same industry,” explained TransLink board chair Tony Gugliotta.

Ah, other people running transit systems are getting big paycheques, so TransLink is making Metro Vancouver taxpayers pony up to keep up with the transit Joneses.

TransLink shouldn’t be surprised if taxpayers question this logic when they are paying more in all kinds of ways. TransLink hiked the tax on gasoline. It hiked the tax on parking. It also hiked bus and SkyTrain fares. As taxpayers feel the squeeze, they should know what’s happening with transit bosses in other cities.

The Toronto Transit Commission hired a new CEO last summer. It advertised a salary range of $247,556 to $356,046. It got 166 applications. And that gig covers a transit system for 5.9 million people.

A few years ago, Montreal went through the same process. It got 150 applications. The new CEO signed for $327,000. Montreal’s transit system serves four million people.

How can Toronto and Montreal attract scores of applicants while offering much less money than TransLink? What are the benchmarks that TransLink is using for comparison?

Let’s go bigger — much bigger.

The reason the top transit job in Toronto opened up is because its former CEO moved to New York. Running the Big Apple’s transit system is no picnic. The New York Post called the position the “toughest job in NYC.” The CEO there gets paid about $433,000 (all U.S. salaries have been converted to Canadian dollars).

That’s in line with other big American cities. The transit boss for Boston makes about $422,000. Chicago pays about $315,000.

Does TransLink really think its CEO pay range needs to be in the same ballpark as New York and Boston? Why does the Vancouver job need to pay almost $100,000 more than the same gig in Chicago? Those cities are much bigger and they have transit systems much more complex than Vancouver.

Let’s look at a closer comparison: Pittsburgh. It has roughly the same population as Vancouver. The Steel City managed to convince its new CEO to move from sunny Florida to slushy Pennsylvania for a salary of about $303,000. The new hire gave no hint that she felt underpaid, and called her new role “a public servant’s dream come true.”

If TransLink were renowned for efficiency, excellent service and its lean executive team, maybe it could try to justify enormously overpaying their CEO. Maybe.

But that’s not the case. There are 18 executives now in line for a salary increase, but people still can’t take SkyTrain overnight, TransLink hands out lavish meeting fees of $575 to politicians per board meeting, and Metro Vancouver is cooking up new plans to hit drivers with new costs through “congestion fees.”

Taxpayers and commuters can’t afford to bankroll a club of high-rolling transit managers. It doesn’t just cost us too much money, it sends a tarnished gold-plated message to all of our other government workers.

These salaries need to come back down to Earth.

Kris Sims is B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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