Newly released expense reports have sparked renewed criticism of a council decision to hike councillors' ward budgets by $40,000.
Expense reports posted online last week reveal six of 15 council members spent less than the approximately $74,000 allotted for their discretionary budget in 2012, including Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo), who each had more than $8,000 they did not spend. Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) had about $3,000 left over and Couns. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona) each had about $2,000 in unspent office funds at the end of 2012.
In January, city council approved a controversial increase in councillors' annual 2013 ward budgets, giving each member an extra $40,000. The allowance is now $114,000 instead of $74,000. The discretionary annual budget is for expenses such as executive assistants, ward activities and mail-outs.
Governance committee chairman Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) said it's not uncommon for councillors to have unspent funds at the end of the year. He said there's no rule stipulating councillors must spend the additional $40,000, and it will be up to them to decide if they need to spend more on support staff or better communication with constituents.
"There's nothing to say you have to spend it, and if it doesn't get spent, it doesn't get spent," Nordman said, adding the office funds do not carry over to the following year.
Critics say the fact several councillors did not spend their total 2012 office budget shows the budget increase was unnecessary.
Browaty called the extra $40,000 "ridiculous" and said 2013 will effectively be the second year in a row councillors got a raise in their office budget. Last year, he said councillors no longer had to use their ward budget to cover their transportation costs, which amounted to about $6,000 in extra money.
Browaty said he doesn't pinch pennies and still had enough money last year to pay his assistant, attend community events and communicate with constituents. He said he plans to spend more money on advertising, but will not need the full $40,000 extra.
"I still don't think that $40,000 was relevant or necessary, especially after the increase the year before," Browaty said.
Canadian Taxpayers Federation Prairie director Colin Craig said the fact several councillors aren't spending the total is an indication the additional $40,000 isn't needed. Craig said councillors who are more frugal with their funds should teach their colleagues how to save money, and council should consider reversing its decision.
"It's been a flawed process from the beginning," he said.
The move to increase councillors' ward allowances was criticized by several members of council at the time, who said councillors should not increase their ward budgets when the city raised taxes 3.87 per cent and cut funding to museums by five per cent. Grants to some other community groups were eliminated.
Six councillors voted in favour of a plan to reduce the increase in 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.
Two councillors have since decided to use a big chunk of the extra money to fund community groups.
In February, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) got permission to give $28,000 of his additional office allowance to Save our Seine, a non-profit group. Last week, council's governance committee approved 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.