Arnold Lim/News Staff Saanich Police Chief Bob Downie will retire at the end of July 2019.

Saanich mayor defends compensation for top cop

The chair of a local watchdog group says the controversial compensation package for Saanich’s top cop sends the “wrong signal” and wonders whether residents will be responsible for similar arrangements in the future.

“Saanich taxpayers have a right to know if a similar huge financial obligation is in place for other civic employees and how mayor and council intend to manage the obligation,” said Stan Bartlett, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria.

He made those comments after the public learned last week that Saanich paid Chief Constable Bob Downie $378,790 following his retirement on July 31, only to rehire him as a contractor for two years (plus an option year), with an annual salary of about $222,711 plus benefits, vacation, leaves of absence and expense reimbursements.

News of this arrangement has caused considerable anger on social media and coloured the debate for the upcoming municipal byelection on Sept. 23.

“It’s now a perfect time for voters to have an adult conversation and ask the mayor of Saanich and police board some tough questions about how they are spending tax dollars,” he said.

Mayor Richard Atwell – who chairs the police board – said he understands the concerns of residents, while defending the arrangement.

He said it was something that was weighed at the police board.

Atwell said Downie’s compensation package does not constitute an “additional cost” for residents. If Saanich had maintained Downie’s previous status as an employee of the Saanich Police Department, he would have received the figure of almost $380,000 upon retirement.

“We brought those costs forward three years,” said Atwell. “But those would have been the same inevitable costs that would have been paid out in 2020.”

It is also possible that his salary upon retirement could have exceeded his annual salary as a contractor, Atwell added. This arrangement has allowed Saanich to hold the line on expenses, while setting out a clear time line for finding a replacement, he said.

Bartlett is not so sure. “The Saanich police board knew about this impending retirement and bungled the issue,” he said. “Their actions send the wrong message – that there’s not much limit to taxpayers’ generosity – to other senior staff at Saanich and to other municipalities.”

Atwell said that Saanich may need up to three years to find a replacement for Downie. He said Saanich didn’t immediately start looking for a new police chief, because the chief didn’t announce that he intended to retire immediately.

“He announced that he intended to retire three years from now,” said Atwell. “So we looked at that timeline and tried to figure out what was the best way to reach that point in time.”

Downie’s compensation package breaks down to $126,000 in severance and $252,000 in banked time.

“Chief Downie is entitled to his annual pay, pension and the undisclosed benefits, which are typically costed at about 25 per cent of salary,” said Bartlett. “The greatest issue is around the reported payout of $126,000 in severance and $252,000 in banked time.

Atwell said the police board has tried to reduce these costs for taxpayers. “But these were inevitable costs that have been built up over the many years that the chief has been at the department, and it is very similar to what you have perhaps seen at other departments when chiefs retire after a long career.”

Bartlett, however, said he wants more answers. “Why has a huge amount of banked time been allowed to accumulate?” he asked. “Was the banked time accumulated while in a non-management capacity? What percentage of banked time is unused sick leave that’s been converted to a payout?”

Coun. Colin Plant is also interested in getting some answers. He – like the media – found about Downie’s retirement through the press release that announced it. “I was surprised to hear that our chief had retired six weeks ago, then hired back,” he said.

Plant said he does not know enough to comment on Downie’s specific arrangement, but plans to ask for additional information during council’s next in-camera meeting.

Plant said he also wants to learn more about salaries for senior directors, whose contracts remain outside collective existing bargaining agreements.

“I believe we need to look at ways to ensure that we are paying the right amount,” he said.

Such a review, however, cannot happen in isolation, because salaries paid elsewhere help determine salaries in Saanich, he said. “Unless something happens at the provincial level, it will be very hard for Saanich to deal on its own with senior directors’ salaries,” he said.

Atwell admitted the police board could have done a better job communicating the contract.

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