Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Councillors' office-budget spending under spotlight

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Winnipeg may need to regulate how councillors spend $40,000 of extra office funds, according to the head of council's governance committee, who said no one anticipated some councillors would use the money to dole out large grants to community groups.

On Friday, council's governance committee approved St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal's request to use a total of $20,000 of his discretionary office budget to fund two museums in his ward -- $10,000 for the St. Boniface Museum, and $10,000 for La Maison Gabrielle Roy. The move marks the second large ward-allowance grant since city council voted in favour of a controversial plan to hike councillors' discretionary budgets by $40,000 per ward.

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Last month, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) got permission to give $28,000 of his additional office funds to Save our Seine, a non-profit group.

Governance chairman Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) said the committee has stipulated these grants will be one-time-only funding as the original intent of the discretionary budget hike was to provide councillors will extra funds to pay their staff, conduct policy research, and communicate better with their constituents. He said he did not anticipate some members of council would want to use a large chunk of the extra funds for grants and plans to ask city administration to review whether rules need to be put in place before 2014, an election year.

Nordman said he would like to see Winnipeg review how councillors in other Canadian cities are able to use their ward allowances, particularly in places where they have larger budgets.

This year, councillors' annual budgets will rise to $114,000 from $74,000.

"It's nothing we can fix for 2013, but sometime before the 2014 funding comes in we will have a little bit more structure," Nordman said Friday.

Council's governance committee must approve any funding grant over $5,000 doled out by a member of council.

Councillors have a discretionary annual budget to pay for executive assistants, ward activities, transportation, postage, mail-outs and other office expenses. Some councillors argued their previous office budget made it difficult to attract and retain staff, operate their office and maintain communication with ward residents.

In January, a move to increase councillors' ward allowances by $40,000 was criticized by several members of council who said councillors should not increase their ward budgets at a time when the City of Winnipeg raised taxes by 3.87 per cent and cut funding to museums by five per cent. Grants to some other community groups were eliminated altogether.

Six members of council, including Vandal and Mayes, voted in favour of a plan to reduce the increase to ward budgets by $17,600 in order to restore the funding cuts. The majority of council did not agree and the idea was shot down.

The St. Boniface Museum had its funding reduced by five per cent and Vandal said La Maison Gabrielle Roy does not receive any civic funding and is celebrating its 10th anniversary. He said both will receive one-time grants and he plans to use the remaining $20,000 in extra office cash on augmenting staff salaries and for research and communications.

"There's a legitimate need for both of them," Vandal said of the funding.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 B2

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