BILLIONAIRE financier Sir James Goldsmith is attributed with the saying: "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys."

So just how much are our Whanganui district councillors worth?

Nothing, I hear the cynical among you say. Putting any cynicism aside, the question deserves more thought and consideration.

In Whanganui the basic salary for a district councillor without a portfolio is around $31,000 (three councillors receive this); with a portfolio they receive $35,000 (eight councillors receive this). That is not a lot of money to most people.

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However, councillors do not decide their own pay. It is the independent Remuneration Authority which sets the pay for councillors and it is required by law to be fair and independent.

It is common to hear members of the public say councillors should do the job for nothing if they genuinely want to serve the community.

However, that would probably mean only retired people, or a few fairly wealthy people who would ever be able to afford to do the job, and that would not be a good cross-section to represent our community.

There is one Whanganui councillor who rarely turns up for council meetings (and even then is usually gone when the half-time whistle blows) and therefore, perhaps, does not deserve to be paid.

However, I believe the job of district councillor warrants a far bigger salary than is currently paid and that is not because I am standing for council myself. I can assure you what they get paid is not going to change my life and has no bearing on why I decided to stand.

We all love to give MPs and councillors a good bash, that is a common pastime, but most of them work damn hard at the job and deserve to get fair compensation.

The basic salary of an Auckland local board member is between $38,000 and $40,000, a lot more than our councillors get. It is also a lot less than the average New Zealand wage of $57,000.

If you are an Auckland ward councillor, you are really raking it in, though, receiving almost $102,000.

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For sure, Auckland has a much bigger population than Whanganui, and that is most of the equation used by the Remuneration Authority in setting salaries, but that does not mean that an Auckland city councillor works any harder than a Whanganui district councillor.

I would be fairly confident to say that the workload is pretty much the same.

Some would argue that the remuneration is adequate compensation for what is supposedly a part-time job. It may, indeed, technically be a part-time job but from what I have seen of the more diligent councillors, it takes far more than a part-time effort to do an effective job.

The public perception may be that turning up to one meeting every six weeks is all the job involves, but there is far more effort behind the scenes than most people realise.

And what about attracting good quality candidates?

I suspect there are a lot of talented, middle/senior managers and business people in Whanganui who would love to become councillors, and would more than likely do an excellent job. However, can they afford to give up a good-paying job for between $31,000 and $35,000 a year? I doubt that.

The result is we often attract candidates who are not that experienced and do not have the skills to do the job properly.

The Remuneration Authority often argues that smaller cities such as Whanganui cannot afford to pay the higher salaries that the bigger centres pay.

The reality is that doubling a councillor's remuneration would have a negligible effect on ratepayers. It would mean an increase in rates of half of 1per cent, which would barely be noticed in anyone's rates.

From all perspectives, the current system for setting councillor remuneration simply is not fair.

Feedback to: steve@stevebaron.co.nz

-Steve Baron is a Whanganui-based political commentator, author and founder of Better Democracy NZ, and holds degrees in economics and political science. He is standing for Whanganui District Council in October.