Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The $40,000 question: Controversy over ward-budget bump won't go away

Critics argue it's time to revisit the boost to councillors' ward budgets

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Two months after city council came under fire for approving a controversial $40,000 increase in councillors' annual office budgets, new expense reports have reignited the debate over civic politicians' discretionary spending.

Last week, the city publicly posted councillors' 2012 expense reports, which revealed more than one-third of council spent less than the $74,000 allowed, including two councillors who had more than $8,000 left over -- a sign critics say shows the budget increase was unnecessary.

This year, councillors will have $114,000 to spend in their annual ward budgets.

Certain restrictions stipulate how they can and can't spend their ward allowance, but there are no clear rules to direct how councillors should use the additional funds.

While council's governance chairman has called for a review of how the extra funds should be spent, others say it's time Winnipeg city council revisit its initial decision to hike office budgets.

"If they had an independent commissioner who looked at what their needs are and really analyze the shortcomings in the existing system and make a recommendation it would be easier to swallow," said Canadian Taxpayers Federation Prairie director Colin Craig. "I don't think it's too late for council to say, 'We made a mistake.' "

-- -- --

Two years ago, city auditors wanted to tighten the rules on how councillors spend their ward allowances after they found only six of the 19 people who served as a city councillor in 2010 submitted proper documentation for charitable donations.

Auditors clarified the rules and said councillors are allowed to hire a full- or part-time assistant and expense things such as computer hardware and tickets to a charity event or golf tournament. Donations are OK, but councillors are limited to purchasing two tickets to a sporting event or concert. Councillors must disclose the business purpose of the expense and provide receipts and state who attended any business meetings.

Auditors suggested councillors no longer use their ward allowance to cover their transportation costs and instead receive a separate taxable allowance of $550 every month. The transportation allowance adds up to an additional $6,600 every year and essentially gave councillors extra money for their 2012 office budgets.

-- -- --

Long before it became a hot-button issue, one city councillor raised concern the existing $74,000 budget was not enough.

Coun. Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) pitched the idea of increasing the amount by $50,000 to council's governance committee, which made a request for the executive policy committee to consider during their 2013 budget deliberations.

Sharma, a former executive assistant to former councillor Mike O'Shaughnessy, said the ward budget has been a "systemic" problem for years and left little wiggle room for mailouts and research. She said her decision to ask for the increase had nothing to do with the added expense of her secondary community office on Leila Avenue -- which cost about $17,000 for rent last year -- but the need for more resources to answer phones, manage ward issues and do a better job proactively researching public policy.

Sharma said she already stretches her budget by clipping coupons for office supplies and bringing her lunch to work rather than expensing meals.

The intent of the request was to increase ward budgets, she said, but not at the expense of other programs. She and other councillors who are not part of executive policy committee did not get a chance to see the civic operating budget until the day it was made public, Sharma said.

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When the city's $921-million operating budget was presented to the entire council earlier this year, it called for an office-budget increase of $40,000 per ward -- for a total of $600,000.

"We recommend the budget and that's what was recommended," finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) said of executive policy committee's decision to recommend a $40,000 increase.

At the same time, the budget called for a 3.87 per cent property tax increase and a five per cent funding cut to museums. Grants to some other community groups were eliminated altogether.

Critics accused council of randomly choosing a number and said Winnipeg should have done an external review to determine whether or not the additional funds were necessary, and if so, how much is warranted.

Couns. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) and Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) asked council to amend the plan and reduce the increase to ward budgets by $17,600 in order to restore nearly $335,400 of funding cuts to museums and other non-profits. Couns. Swandel, Gerbasi, Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) and John Orlikow (River Heights) voted in favour of the amendment, but the majority of councillors did not agree.

City council approved the operating budget without amending the ward budget increase.

Sharma and other supporters argued Winnipeg city councillors receive far less than their provincial counterparts and have more contact with the public.

"It's one of those things that's never going to be popular," Sharma said, adding, "the vote speaks for itself."

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As it turns out, $114,000 is not out of line compared to what elected officials in other parts of the country and other jurisdictions receive.

A member of the Manitoba legislature who represents a Winnipeg riding will receive $102,143 annually -- $56,461 to run an office in their constituency and a maximum of $45,682 to pay an executive assistant. If an MLA wants to pay their executive assistant more, the funds will have to come out of their constituency budget.

They also receive $1,250 a month to help cover the cost of rent for their constituency office, a $6,093 base for travel costs and funds to mail out a newsletter two or three times a year that's calculated by the number of households in the ward. Typically, the total annual cost falls somewhere between $2,000 and $7,000 for the mailouts, according to provincial officials who said MLAs have been asked to reduce their spending by $6,000 in light of Manitoba's deficit. Their annual total is approximately between $125,000 and $130,000, depending on their travel and how many newsletters they send out.

Calgary's aldermen each receive $174,455 a year and Edmonton's city councillors get $108,624. In Ottawa, city councillors get $241,508 while Toronto's councillors receive $250,209.28.

-- -- --

Bigger budgets typically come with more rules.

Cities such as Toronto split what councillors can spend into two categories -- their salary budget and their constituency budget. Councillors receive a discretionary staffing budget of $220,209.28 -- the equivalent of the top salary range for three staff, including an executive assistant, administrative assistant and constituency assistant who councillors can choose to hire full- or part-time. Councillors also receive $30,000 in discretionary budget funds for their office expenses. Even if they choose to spend their personal funds instead of the taxpayers' money, the limit remains $30,000 and they still have to file receipts.

Toronto councillors can spend a maximum of $500 a year on business meals and are not allowed to expense any alcohol. They are not allowed to expense cable for their home office, charity golf tournaments organized by agencies, corporations or lobbyists,

Mike Hinds, office manager for Calgary's alderman office, said Calgary gives its aldermen a template so they have a guide on how to spend their office funds. They also have restrictions. No executive assistant can be paid more than $65,000 a year, Hinds said, and aldermen cannot spent more than $10,000 on travel or $14,000 on discretionary ward spending.

"It's just considered reasonable for the type of job that we have here," Hinds said. "That should be sufficient."

Edmonton city councillors' budgets stipulate executive assistants are paid between $55,950 and $70,433, and research assistants are paid hourly rates that range between $18.46 and $23.89. An Edmonton city official said if councillors do not spend their entire budget on staff, they can use the remaining funds at their own discretion.

The Manitoba government prohibited cash donations in 2010. Any gift an elected official gives to mark a special occasion must be under $150 and souvenir items -- such as pins -- doled out to constituents cannot be worth more than $30. Provincial politicians are not allowed to spend more than $8,470 a year on constituency meetings, and any changes to MLA spending is recommended by an external commissioner following the general election.

By comparison, there is no salary range for executive assistants employed by Winnipeg city councillors, and cash donations, expensing alcohol for business meals and charging for basic cable in a home office are still allowed.

-- -- --

Two recent large-scale donations have raised concern the additional $40,000 should be better regulated.

In February, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) got the go-ahead from council's governance committee to give $28,000 of his additional office allowance to Save our Seine, a non-profit group. Last week, the committee approved St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal's request to use a total of $20,000 of his discretionary budget to fund two museums in his ward -- $10,000 for the St. Boniface Museum and $10,000 for La Maison Gabrielle Roy.

The committee stipulated all the donations will only be allowed as a one-time-only grant.

Governance chairman Coun. Grant Nordman has called for a review of how councillors in other Canadian cities are able to use their ward allowances in light of these large donations, saying the extra $40,000 was intended for office expenses, not grants.

Mayes said both he and Vandal did not support the $40,000 increase and he would rather see council rescind its decision than stipulate the money must be used on things such as advertising rather than helping out community organizations in need. He said he does not need the $40,000 for his office and wanted to use it for an environmental group in his ward that was not eligible for other city funding grants.

"I think my first preference would be to go back to roughly what we had before," Mayes said.

The money behind the message

You get flyers in the mail and see their faces on bus benches. But how much does that cost?

Printing a card or mailout: Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) spent $2059.77 on a card calendar, Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) spent $900 on Christmas greetings, Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) spent $3,233 on printed material.

Ads on benches: between $250 and $720 per bench -- Coun. Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) spent $3,835 throughout the year with Benchmark Advertising, Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) spent $8,514 in 2012 to advertise with Benchmark Advertising. Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) spent $2,062 to advertise on rental benches last year, and Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) spent $3,020.

Ads on recycle boxes: about $220 per box -- Coun. Thomas Steen (Elmwood) spent more than $2,800 for advertising on outdoor recycle boxes throughout the year, and Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) spent $2,941.90.s

Other ads: Coun. Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) spent $1,428 for a commercial on CJOB, Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) spent $2,205 for a holiday message with Bell Media Inc., and Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) spent $1,250 on a community update ad.

Leftover crumbs

Some other items included in council's 2012 expense reports:

Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) spent the most on holiday treats including a total of $2,373.80 on ginger bread cookies from Stellas Bakery and $1,469 on Christmas hamper turkeys.

Coun. Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) spent $1,230 on gift certificates to McNally Robinson.

Coun. Thomas Steen (Elmwood) contributed a $695.50 autographed hockey stick to the Amadeus Steen Foundation.

Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) spent $1867.38 on turkeys for a local rotary club and $5,128.55 on baskets and arrangements from local florists.

--Source: City of Winnipeg, council expense reports, 2012

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 A6

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