Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cookies a gift from taxpayers

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City councillors dipped into their discretionary budgets at a furious pace in December, spending up to four times as much as they did on average in the previous 11 months.

It's hard to escape the observation they were motivated by the old budgeting principle of "spend it or lose it," particularly after they voted to increase their ward-representation allowance by 50 per cent, to $114,000 this year from $74,000.

Coun. Russ Wyatt, for example, spent $17,544 in December, compared to an average of $4,983 per month between January and November, while Coun. Devi Sharma went through more than $18,000 in December, but only an average $5,000 per month for the rest of the year.

The sole exception was Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, whose spending in December fell to $3,622 from a monthly average of $6,439, but every councillor managed their budgets to ensure they spent close to the total amount allowable last year.

Some of the last-minute spending was for expenses occurred in previous months, but overall the trend exposes a troubling disregard for taxpayers and an attitude that councillors are entitled to their entitlements.

Also, did taxpayers really need to spend more than $2,500 last December on cookies and a candy tray in the Charleswood-Tuxedo ward on behalf of Coun. Paula Havixbeck?

Coun. Wyatt was reimbursed in December for 32 "business" meetings in various restaurants? It's possible, of course, he was reading the Globe and Mail -- also charged to the taxpayer as a necessary tool he would not otherwise have purchased -- at those unavoidable lunch and dinner dates.

Many councillors also file invoices for their home Internet and cable connections, but surely the kind of people who run for political office already have such services, which today are almost as essential as any utility, which taxpayers should not be asked to underwrite. Elected officials are not self-employed, yet they seem to believe they are entitled to reimbursement if they answer a phone call at home.

It's equally disturbing that councillors somehow managed to increase their discretionary budgets last year without telling their constituents.

It was only disclosed recently that councillors were given a separate pot of money last year to cover transportation costs, which amounted to roughly $6,000 in extra money. They were also allowed $1,500 for parking in a separate account.

If these allotments had not been covered separately last year, every councillor would have overspent his or her budget, unless they cut back on some of the other essentials, such as cookies, newspaper subscriptions, meals, coffee machines, TVs and other expenses, including large grants to organizations and causes deemed worthy.

For the record, every expense is scrutinized by city staff and audited to ensure it meets the criteria, so there is no suggestion anyone is pocketing cash unlawfully. The public, however, has a right to demand councillors display better judgment and a higher regard for the taxpayer.

Councillors justified the increase in their ward allowances on the grounds it was necessary to pay their assistants a decent wage and to boost communication with constituents in their wards, which are twice as large as provincial ridings.

They did so without a single piece of research outlining the best practices in other cities. There was zero interest in developing a non-political process for future increases or decreases, and zero consultation with taxpayers to determine if they felt they were being adequately informed on current issues.

The wages and benefits of members of Parliament and the legislative assembly are determined by third parties to bolster public confidence, but there is zero interest at city hall in a similar measure. There will, however, be an opportunity to revisit the issue in the next election in 2014.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A8

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