Hirji’s 2021 salary bump raises eyebrows

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara Region’s Acting Medical Officer of Health, took a lot of heat for his pandemic decisions over the past two years, which in part precipitated incidents of rowdy protesters showing up outside his home.

Hirji earned $252,907 in 2019, and $296,583 in 2020. His remuneration jumped to $457,013 in 2021, a dramatic 54 percent increase when many were suffering economic hardship across the region.

Remarkably, he was not the top Niagara earner on Ontario’s Sunshine List.

That honour went to Lynn Guerriero, president and CEO of the Niagara Health hospital system, whose payout was $486,441. She earned $350,269 in 2020. Guerriero’s first full year with the hospital system was 2021, at which time her responsibilities were augmented to include the CEO portfolio.

The province’s annual Sunshine List contains the names of public sector workers who are paid $100,000 or more a year in salaries, bonuses, overtime, and severances. The recently released report has some 240,000 entries. It was introduced in 1996 by Conservative Premier Mike Harris, as part of his Common Sense Revolution platform highlighting accountability and transparency.

The Region did not respond to a Voice request for information on Hirji’s 2021 payout, but Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson said that she had received a notification from the Region’s Public Health and Social Services Committee, explaining that Hirji’s increase was due to a one-time wage top-up due to overtime and extenuating circumstances during the pandemic.

In a report to Regional Council, Region CEO Ron Tripp (who was paid $310,250 in 2021) said that the Ontario Ministry of Health would fully fund the salary top-up for Hirji, with no impact on local taxpayers.

Ken Hartwick, the CEO of Ontario Power Generation (OPG), was the highest-paid provincial employee at over $1.6 million. In fact, executives at OPG were the top four highest-paid public employees in the province in 2021.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford made $208,974 last year.

Some observers think that the financial threshold to make the Sunshine List is now unrealistically low. After all, the list came into existence in 1996, when $100,000 bought a lot more than it does in 2022, a quarter century later. Some suggest that a salary level of $150,000 would be more sensible, or maybe even $200,000.

Others believe that the list itself is an anachronism, and simply an exercise in paycheque-envy.

But $100,000 is still a lot of money (especially when one considers that the average wage earner in this province makes about $52,000 a year), and these are public servants earning taxpayer-funded dollars. Many citizens expect full disclosure and transparency on such issues.

Other high-income earners in Niagara include Niagara Regional Police Chief Bryan MacCulloch ($339,315), Brock University President and Vice-Chancellor Lynn Wells ($291,636), and Niagara College President Sean Kennedy ($285,452).

In Pelham, CAO David Cribbs was the top earner, at $182,505. Fire Chief Bob Lymburner was next at $146,523, followed by Planning Director Barb Weins at $144,699 and Corporate Services Director Teresa Quinlin-Murphy at $143,024. Solicitor Jennifer Stirton earned $132,943, while Public Works Director Jason Marr was paid $130,103.

In total, 11 Pelham staffers made the Sunshine List.

One could argue that Pelham’s senior staff are performing at a high level, buttressed by a recent accolade. For the second straight year, the Town of Pelham has been honoured with the Canadian Award for Financial Reporting, by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA).

“The fact that our fi nance department has, for the second year in a row, been awarded this honour can be attributed to not only our great staff in the finance department, but to this council’s stated desire to have the Town’s finances presented in a timely, totally transparent fashion that is easily understood by anyone reading the document,” Mayor Marvin Junkin told the Niagara Independent last week.

At the federal level, Members of Parliament have a tradition of rewarding themselves with pay raises every year on April 1. According to the Canadian Taxpayer’s Coalition, this year’s pay raise will range from an extra $3,700 for a backbench MP to an additional $7,400 for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The province’s full list can be found at www.ontario.ca/public-sector-salary-disclosure/2021/all-sectors-and-seconded-employees.