Is council getting fat on back of the taxpayer?
Wednesday’s meeting of the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC) was remarkably brief, about a half hour, as least for the public session. An in camera portion followed. However, if past practice is anything to go by, committee members may still head up to the cafeteria on the 12th floor and order a lunch on the taxpayer.
Careful records are kept of who orders what and the final total is treated as a taxable benefit. This perk is limited to those occasions when councillors have meetings that extends (or may extend) over the lunch hour and at which no lunch is provided. At many meeting that run over the lunch hour, sandwiches and beverages will be provided for the participants. These too will be accounted for as a taxable benefit. The more meetings one attends, the higher the fringe benefits.
Meetings of the other standing committees and council normally begin at 4 p.m. and last until well after the dinner hour. Participants are usually served a hot meal at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. Again, these meals are regarded as taxable fringe benefits.
These “free lunches” were the subject of an inquiry from Stephen Orser as an added item on the agenda of the FAC. He wanted to know what would be the savings to the taxpayer if these were to be discontinued. He was also curious to know whether the meals consumed by senior staff at these meetings are also "free".
Orser thought that the city might follow Toronto’s lead by eliminating these lunches and beverages.
It is not entirely clear to which meals Orser was referring. Although he referenced only “lunches”, he concludes with the question, “Is it time to end the free lunch service at the top of city hall?” Most of the lunches are consumed, not in the cafeteria, but in meeting rooms. They are working lunches. The meals consumed at the top of city hall are hot dinners on Monday evenings, and alternate Tuesdays for members of the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee.
Personally, I found the dinners to afford a good opportunity for staff and councillors to meet a little more informally as well as providing a decent hot meal for people who, in many cases, have left their workplaces early in order participate in meetings well into the evening. The food is good, although I was surprised to learn that the price per meal was $28. Perhaps cutting out desserts would save a few dollars as well as inches on councillors’ waistlines!
Overall, the money saved by cutting these out and asking councillors to brown bag it would be about $19,000 per year. If that figure was what happened in 2010, then it would be lower by about $4,000 this year since council has been downsized by the elimination of the Board of Control.
In 2003, Paul VanMeerbergen vowed as part of his campaign platform not to eat dinner at the taxpayers’ expense. He kept that commitment for that first term. He could sometimes been seen in local restaurants, grabbing a quick bite by himself before heading back to council chambers. It’s not an easy thing to do: it isolates you from your colleagues, and often the amount of time you have is limited to less than half an hour. After he was re-elected in 2006, he joined the other councillors in the cafeteria.
To ask councillors to pay for this “perk” would reduce their stipend, which hasn’t been increased since 2008, by about $1,000. It’s probably not a deal breaker; there would probably still be a significant number of good candidates willing to stand for public office. It just seems a little mean-spirited since the savings to the taxpayer would be less than 10 cents per year.
It has been suggested that this is a diversionary tactic by Councillor Orser. The Statement of Remuneration and Expenses for Elected and Appointed Officials had just been released. His “expenses”, which do not include these meals since they are covered under fringe benefits, were higher than those of any other member of city council (except Bernie Macdonald) in 2010 and the media were asking questions about them.
Additionally, during the budget meetings he had suggested that there should be more money available for “trash and trinkets”, a slang expression used to describe councillors’ expenses accounts, si that elected officials would be able to better communicate with their constituents.
Currently, the expense account limit is $7,000 per person, plus mileage for any in city driving or parking costs. Since August 2010, claimants of mileage allowance have been required to provide specific details of council business for which mileage is being claimed, a stipulation that some councillors seem to find onerous, preferring to simply claim a flat rate. My guess is that claims are down now since the wards which councillors represent are not that large. In fact, in 2009 about half of councillors claimed no mileage.
Before my term on council expired, I suggested that a bylaw be established to specify what trips should be covered by mileage allowance. A few years ago, Toronto clarified that travel to and from City Hall should not be covered by taxpayers. Perhaps Orser can follow up on that. That might save even more than brown bagging it!