Should alcohol be a reimbursable expense for city council members?
That was one of the debates bubbling up from council chambers recently as the process of updating council’s remuneration and expense bylaw began.
The bylaw as it stands is “ambiguous,” said Glen Savard, director of finance for City of Chilliwack, as he launched into the staff-led discussion in council chambers on Sept. 4, with a presentation that included options of a housekeeping nature.
The whole expense rules discussion at city hall also took place against the backdrop of scrutiny from within council itself that’s been on Coun. Sam Waddington, who is also running for mayor, for his higher-than-average expenses in 2017. The day he offered a detailed explanation of his expenses was the same day council also started looking at the existing bylaw.
Eventually council decided to exclude alcohol as an allowable expense, and offered staff direction on several related fronts, to assist in cleaning up the bylaw. The matter is set to come back later with draft recommendations.
Many informal or unwritten policies function as grey areas that need to be clarified, and integrated into the Council Expense bylaw.
“I would like to see something in here that says alcohol is exempt from expenses,” said Coun. Sue Attrill. That discussion would come up later as part of the per diems versus daily maximum limits debate.
Attrill called the practice of expensing alcohol a “slippery slope” and said it can cause problems so it is better left off the list of allowable expenses.
Coun. Sam Waddington said doing some homework prior to the meeting, he found after looking into practices at 22 municipalities, he said “none” have explicit policies around alcohol.
Mayor Gaetz called alcohol “a luxury” and said she agreed with Coun. Attrill it shouldn’t be covered.
Coun. Jason Lum said “obviously alcohol will be a hot button issue,” but he also underlined it was the “ambiguity” of some of the language in the existing bylaw that needed tightening up.
“Council’s focus should be to narrow it down,” Lum said.
The issue of “trust” required by taxpayers for elected officials came up. Coun. Lum said he didn’t think the public was really concerned if he had “chicken salad for lunch” or not, in terms of reporting expense details.
“If people aren’t willing to trust us with a $90 per diem, how will they trust us to manage a more than $100-million annual budget?” Lum asked later.
He said point blank during the lengthy debate: “This is a very political discussion. Am I going to die on this hill? Probably not.”
There are bigger questions to consider, Coun. Lum noted, and “a referendum” is coming in the form of an election to decide questions of leadership in less than a month.
Mayor Gaetz commented: “I will add that trust is earned,” and later “some are very interested that you had chicken salad.”
Some of the discussion was around whether to put annual limits on conference expenses, and whether to allow “entertainment” of guests as an allowable expense.
The members of council talked about going for per diems as reimbursement method for expenses, versus maximum daily limits, and they opted for a combination.
They discussed adding extended medical benefits to council remuneration, to bring it in line with what other communities are doing, as well as considering raising the remuneration levels to offset the federal decision to no longer provide the one-third tax-free portions.
Effective in 2019, 100 per cent of council remuneration will be taxable.
To prepare, some communities across Canada have boosted their council remuneration to compensate for the end of tax-free status for the one-third portion of their pay.
“I really think that’s a decision better made by the new council, rather than making that decision now,” said Coun. Attrill, about the prospect of “burdening” the incoming members of council in early 2019 with a pay increase.
Conference attendance came up and it was decided that expenses should be covered for conferences and meetings of organizations where the city has active membership. Under the existing bylaw the mayor has to authorize any travel beyond the city boundaries under the Delegation Bylaw.
More discussion will ensue when staff bring back a draft for council to consider in the coming weeks. Stay tuned at www.theprogress.com