Three Nanaimo politicians billed taxpayers more in the first half of the year than in all of 2015, largely thanks to call display, Internet and legal costs, a new financial report shows.
As part of a financial policy, the city released councillors’ expense totals for the first six months and details of where money went. Previously, expense information was released once a year in a Statement of Financial Information or through Freedom of Information requests, and councillors drew from a common pool of money.
This year’s total budget is $118,000 – up from $75,000 – with $40,000 as a result of an increased legal budget for eight council members. Mayor Bill McKay has a budget of $15,000, while each councillor gets $13,500 except Coun. Diane Brennan, who gets $8,500.
Victor Mema, director of finance, said Brennan’s lower budget is because a council decision means she did not get a legal budget.
While no one has overspent so far this year, Coun. Gord Fuller spent four times as much compared to all of 2015, at $4,706, with the largest expense a $3,593 legal bill, followed by $770 in Internet costs, while Coun. Bill Bestwick’s spending is up 59 per cent over the whole of 2015 at $4,844. Reimbursed legal fees, also $3,593, accounted for the majority of the bill, followed by $937 for call display and Internet. Coun. Ian Thorpe is the second-lowest spender in the first six months of this year, claiming $2,038, but expenses are 18 per cent higher than last year’s total, with the largest costs going to an $859 Internet and call display bill followed by the Local Government Leadership Academy in Vancouver for $840.
Coun. Wendy Pratt is the highest spender of the year-to-date, with $6,582 billed to the city.
The highest costs were for a $2,909 trip to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Winnipeg, $1,178 expense for 2016 High Ground Governance Forum at Harrison Hot Springs and a $974 bill for call display and Internet.
Coun. Jerry Hong follows as the second-highest spender at $6,088, and Mayor Bill McKay at $6,025.
At least two councillors take issue with some aspects of the new financial policy.
McKay doesn’t see what was wrong with the previous system, where his expenses were still known. He says council never overspent its budget and “you had all the facts in front of you.”
A pool of money provides more flexibility for councillors to take advantage of educational opportunities to better themselves, whereas the new policy doesn’t give any flexibility at all, according to McKay.
While he doesn’t see the policy changing, he does think there will be a significant surplus at the end of the year, that advancement opportunities for individual councillors will be lost and his activities severely curtailed.
Brennan said it’s good the community has access to how council is spending its money and that individual set budgets are not uncommon. But she’s also seeing some obstacles in how conferences are accessed and how councillors get information.
As an example, she’s not permitted to contact staff members. So she can’t contact Mema about what her allowance is, how it works and what format he wants to use, because everything goes through the chief administrative officer.
The expense report is the first time Brennan has seen a dollar figure associated with her expenses.
Fuller, however, likes the set budgets.
“I think it’s great we have limits set on us, we’re accountable, we’re putting the budget out there for the public to see,” he said.