You can learn some interesting things when examining our city councillors' use of their expense accounts funded by you, the taxpayer.
At first glance it may not be all that obvious. There are a lot of numbers to deal with. After all, there are 14 councillors, and they don't all use exactly the same approach to their use of the money that we have given them to represent us. And since the current council has taken office, despite its preoccupation with keeping other parts of the city departments at a zero increase, it has been very successful garnering more dollars for itself. But since they have nearly tripled their allotment over the last few years, we may well ask what are they doing with the money? Are we getting a reasonable deal?
I will leave the issue of the mayor's expenses for another day. But what about councillors? How are they using the money that we give them?
Their expense accounts are supposed to allow them to do their work in the community, to attend functions as representatives of the city, to engage their constituents, to help them carry out their committee and council work. The dollars assigned to that are in the range of $15,000. That's supposed to cover the cost of maintaining contact with their constituents, paying for tickets to community events, providing small gifts and souvenirs, and paying for additional support for constituency and research assistance. Councillors are not expected to pay for office staff, space and supplies at city hall. That is provided separately from councillors' expense accounts.
The total councillors claim for expenses are interesting in and of themselves. The top spenders (exclusive of expenditures incurred while representing the city at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities) were Bill Armstrong ($14,798.74), Dale Henderson ($14,471.12), Sandy White ($14,542.90). The most parsimonious were Paul VanMeerbergen ($201.04), Joe Swan ($4,881.61), and Nancy Branscombe ($6,025.76). It's a significant range.
A more important question than how much they spent is what they did or didn't spend it on.
Under the current rules, there are few restrictions. After a rather heated debate, council agreed that using taxpayers resources for trinkets and trash, otherwise known as gifts, should be limited to $1,000. The total per councillor on all items is approximately $15,000. So here's what your councillor is doing with your largesse.
A big issue over the last couple of years, there has been considerable discussion over how councillors' use of their own vehicles is recognized. In most municipalities, travel to and from city hall is not acceptable as a travel expense. But there are occasions when you have to pay visits to part of your ward or even outside it when you may not be using a taxi, train or bus.
When I was on council, about half of the councillors claimed expenses for using their own vehicles at the government mileage rate. I thought it was pretty generous and tended not to claim it. After all, I was maintaining a car anyway; it wasn't that big a deal. I did keep tabs one year and found that claiming mileage for every kilometre (and my events were throughout the city, not just one ward) would net me about $400. Nevertheless, my colleagues on the Board of Control found it cost them between $1,500 and $$2,000.
Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about how using one's personal vehicle should be treated. Before I left, we were required to submit the details of our claim: where we went and why. The current councillors found that too onerous; they wanted a flat rate. The compromise was that they can now submit their claims with receipts but they have to come out of their overall expenses. What they claim for car allowance is money that can't be used for conferences, trinkets and trash, or attending community events.
No matter what the formula, however, it's clear that the same divide exists; some people have a lot of car expenses while others have none. Those claiming none are Joni Baechler, Branscombe and VanMeerbergen. Also very low (under $200) are White, Denise Brown, Matt Brown and Paul Hubert. At the other extreme are Henderson ($4,357.69), Stephen Orser ($3,593.22) and Bud Polhill ($2,799.93). Joe Swan and Harold Usher are not far behind.
You really have to wonder where they go that justifies that kind of expenditure although Henderson must put on some extra miles to visit the ward and the city that he represents but doesn't live in. And then there are those accidental trips to Billy T's, all the way across town. And Orser had some repairs to his transmission that the taxpayer would certainly want to look after.
This is a tricky area.
Councillors are often asked to take out advertising for greetings at Christmas and New Year's or in the programmes for special events. Some councillors prefer to call this sponsorship; they're just helping out with an event or publication. Nevertheless, it's a fine line between self-promotion and sponsorship. During an election period, declared incumbents won't be able to reclaim the cost of these and even in the off season, eyebrows may be raised. Is this really a means of community engagement or is the councillor simply trying to raise his or her profile in preparation for the next election?
When it comes to self-promotion, no one on council can touch Sandy White. She spent $2,667.39 on advertising in a variety of citywide, community and ethnic newspapers as well as event programmes, more than double what anyone else spent. Harold Usher was a distant second at $1,165.23. All others spent less than $1,000 with Baechler, Branscombe, Judy Bryant, Polhill and VanMeerbergen devoting no money at all to advertising.
On the surface, this looks very altruistic. What could be more laudable than donating to worthy causes or organizations?
Still, these are taxpayers' dollars, not the councillors' personal income that is being donated. Is it appropriate that we give some money to councillors to hand out as they see fit? How does this largesse influence a councillor's popularity when it comes to the next election?
Polhill is the big spender here, giving $4,728 of your tax dollars to his pet projects. Next is White with $2,860 and Denise Brown handing over $2420. Swan isn't far behind with sponsorships and donations tallying at $2,060. Branscombe and Bryant provided no sponsorships, and VanMeerbergen gave only $10.
Trinkets and Trash
After significant discussion a year or so ago, council determined that spending on “gifts”--golf shirts, watches, umbrellas, teddy bears, water bottles and other paraphernalia carrying the city logo—should be limited to $1,000. This was after Stephen Orser had proudly displayed a trunk full of these items to the media. It appears that Orser was able to contain himself and stay within the new limits, perhaps because his ward is already saturated with them.
But apparently not everyone took that to heart. Councillor Sandy White managed to spend almost $1,500 of your hard earned tax dollars on these toys. Armstrong and Denise Brown came in at just under $1,000 on these items, followed closely by Orser and Usher. Branscombe spent no money on these items while Baechler, Swan and VanMeerbergen forked over less than $50 for them.
What these numbers don't show, however, is spending on items that are not classified as “promotional” but may well be in the same category, things like “informational magnets”. You get the idea.
More about this later when I had a chance to run the numbers. Right now, I need to count some sheep!