It's time to do away with Councillors' discretionary spending budgets.
By Graham Crawford
Published February 18, 2011
It began with a clumsy photo op: our newly minted Mayor pretending to throw taxpayers' money, in the form of a $10,000 cheque, to the head of the United Way. Great cause. Bad gesture.
As if the optics of that stunt weren't ill-conceived enough, when challenged on the legality of the donation, Mayor Bob Bratina bristled and dismissed any concerns as ridiculous. He suggested that all he had to do to stay legal was to write 39 cheques of $350 each, the amount allowed for a single contribution from an elected offiical in Hamilton.
So much for cheques and balances, I suppose.
All this raises the question: what exactly are the Mayor and the Councillors doing with a discretionary fund in each of their office budgets that permits charitable/not-for-profit contributions and sponsorships in the first place?
First a little fiscal context, based on the Elected Official Remuneration Report (CM06016(a) from the Audit and Administration Committee from June 11, 2007, City Councillors in Hamilton receive an annual salary of $63,750 plus a tax-free top-up of $17,250.
Although that totals $80,000, the fact that nearly a quarter of it is tax-free means it's actually more than $80,000, at least it is in working taxpayer terms - since none of us receive nearly a quarter of our income without any tax taken from it.
The Mayor receives $112,502 in salary and an extra tax-free top-up of $30,202, for a total of $142,704. The tax-free portion is greater than the total income for some families in Hamilton.
In addition, each Councillor has a discretionary budget that in some cases reaches nearly $200,000. Most use a big chunk of this discretionary budget to hire extra staff. Councillor Brian McHattie has one full time and one part-time staff people in his office to serve the needs of the residents in his Ward.
Then-Councillor, now-Mayor, Bratina did the same, although currently he runs the Mayor's Office with just three staff positions. He said himself that it was his small staff complement that "afforded" him, and I do use the term loosely, the opportunity to find the extra $10,000 he used for his cheque-throwing photo-op donation to the United Way.
Most Councillors produce a newsletter using money from the discretionary budget. Informing your constituents of what's going on in the Ward seems like a reasonable investment to me, whether that's for an on-line or print version, or more likely both.
That's not charitable largesse; it's simply good communication and it should be included in their office budget. As a result, there are also postage and delivery expenses related to this kind of communication.
The discretionary budget is used also for paying for things such as office supplies, cell phones and parking, to name a few. Without this budget, spent on these kinds of items, Councillors would have a difficult time running an effective and efficient office able to respond to constituents questions and issues.
However, in addition to running the office, most Councillors allocate many thousands of dollars from that same discretionary budget for promotion, public relations, charitable contributions and sponsorships every year.
The items from this list include things such as fridge magnets with their face and contact information, personalized pens again with name and contact info, website design and maintenance, flowers sent in sympathy, movie nights in public parks, door prizes/gifts, uniforms for little league baseball and soccer teams, tickets to banquets/dinners, ads in neighbourhood newsletters, and so on.
Generally speaking, and quite unlike office supplies or parking expenses, Councillors attach their names to every single one of these items. If they give it, you're gonna know they gave it.
The problem is that we provide this money through our taxes to each of them so they can freely spend portions of it providing donations to organizations they deem to be worthy of receiving our money, using their names. And they promote themselves giving trinkets with their names on them.
They get the credit. We get the bill.
These examples are representative, not comprehensive, although the information is freely available directly from your Councillor.
Let me be clear, I'm not trying to make life even more difficult for dedicated volunteers doing the great work they do. What I'm questioning is why Councillors should be able to spend our money to make themselves look magnanimous, which they do every single year they're in office - and which for some is literally decades.
That's a lot of our money being 'donated' by Councillors on their behalf, and not on ours.
Here's a simple question that may help in forming your own opinion about the Councillors' practice of using your money to make contributions with their names attached to them.
If Earl Basse, the City's Integrity Commissioner, found 16 managers on the City payroll who, for decades, had decided to donate a hundred thousand each year of the City's money to their favourite charities, using their own names to make the donations, would he say it was okay for them to do so?
I'd like to think Mr. Basse would rule in favour of the City and its taxpayers and immediately shut down the charitable contributions by managers, proving my point that this isn't about the charities, but about the source of and the propriety of the contributions.
To borrow a line from Dr. Phil: how's this working for you? For me, it's not working very well at all.
Pretty much anywhere in the world, when a politician gives money to a potential voter, it's frowned upon. I'm not suggesting our Councillors are doing anything underhanded, or even intimating they're buying votes. In fact, what they're doing is completely legal under the current Hamilton by-law that permits them to sponsor a baseball team, or buy a table at a cultural event, or give money to local neighbourhood association for an ad in their newsletter.
The only regulation for how they spend our money is that a single contribution may not exceed the limit of $350. But sometimes being technically legal isn't the same as being seen to be living up to the spirit of the law.
As odd as it may seem, sometimes what's legal doesn't always pass the public smell test. Think of Mayor Bratina's writing-39-cheques solution.
There are people in this city who can barely pay their property taxes, or pay their heating bill in winter, or buy a bus pass, yet they are the very same people who are funding this Councillor largesse in Hamilton.
I don't think it unfair to hypothesize that the more a Councillor contributes our money to groups in his or her riding, the more likely he or she will be remembered by the people who received the contribution. I'm not saying this is why they are making the donation, but merely positing that it's a not illogical outcome of the donation.
If any Councillor, or anybody else for that matter, would like to challenge my hypothesis, I'm open to hearing their views.
In the meantime, I have a simple recommendation.
I recommend we reduce the Councillors' discretionary funds - used for contributions to charities, not-for-profit organizations and other such groups, as well as any promotional items that use their images and/or names and contact information - to zero now. As in right now, and not at the end of their current term.
I believe Councillors who speak the loudest in their opposition to my tax saving recommendation are the ones we should question the most. Let's get to the root cause of their desire not to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars during their term in office.
I say, pay for your own self-promotion. If you want to get re-elected that badly, pay for the between-election campaigning out of your own pocket, not ours.
I might even be so bold as to suggest they join the ranks of all of the other employees of the City of Hamilton who use their own, after-tax money when they give a donation. Many of them have signed up for the payroll deduction plan that raises funds for the United Way. Perhaps all Councillors should do the same, if they haven't already.
To all the organizations that say they invite their Councillor to attend their events because they represent them locally, please keep inviting them. I'm sure your Councillor will continue to show his or her support for your organization by showing up at your event, as your guest.
Just stop asking him or her to use taxpayers' money to buy a ticket for your fundraising draw, or to help buy uniforms for the soccer or baseball team, or to buy a table for your annual event. Stop asking him or her for our money.
If you wish, start asking Councillors for their own money. Or just invite them as you would a friend to a house party and expect only that they will show up and have a good time.
By creating a level playing field through ensuring there is no money for Councillors to give away, and communicating this fact through the Councillors' own newsletters and emails, as well as announcing it at a Council meeting once Councillors have voted unanimously to demonstrate their tax-saving leadership, we avoid any awkwardness between organizations and their Councillors.
No taxpayer money. No asking. No hard feelings. See how simple that was.
Some Councillors are already thinking about tax-saving efficiencies, as reported recently by Citizens at City Hall (CATCH).
Councillor Chad Collins said, when speaking about finding cost savings in the Waste Management Department's budget, "We could actually save that half a million, $300,000, $400,000, and reinvest into either your own area, or other areas of the organization that are in an infrastructure deficit position."
Well said, Councillor Collins. Keep finding those multi-hundred thousand dollar savings.
Councillor Sam Merulla, when speaking to the same Waste Management Department, offered somewhat pointedly, "I think we can save 1,000 times more just by eliminating lunches in the department. [...] Quite clearly, this council has spoken on the need to have services remain intact and to decrease the cost of doing business."
Councillor Merulla, you and I are in sync on this one. Keep using that 1,000 times multiplier as you look for cost savings. I am.
My own Councillor, Jason Farr, was quoted in the Spectator suggesting it might be wise to consider doing what I'm recommending, namely reducing the discretionary fund for contributions and sponsorships to zero.
He said it before I wrote it. Good for him, although I'm not sure his comments were all that popular with some of his fellow Councillors. For that matter, I'm not sure my own comments will be either.
Mayor Bratina says constantly that he's all about openness and transparency. Me too.
May I suggest, Mayor Bratina, that you be open enough to consider doing what's right for our already-overburdened taxpayers, and transparent enough to prove you actually mean what you say?
Let's stop "throwing" taxpayer money to others, and start "lobbing" it back into general revenues on behalf of the people who put up the money in the first place, namely the taxpaying citizens of Hamilton.
Let's be clear: I support all of the fine work done by local volunteers and organized charities. I just don't want our politicians to be using our money for their so-called 'donations' to these organizations. Simply put, it's not their money to donate. It's our money.
For those Councillors who may find this rather simple tax-savings plan a little hard to swallow, I say swallow harder. Support the goal of Councillor Collins, Councillor Merulla, Councillor Farr, Mayor Bratina and probably others to drive down spending in order to keep tax increases to zero. It's a worthwhile goal, one that will be appreciated by all taxpayers, regardless of which Ward they live in.
We will not get to zero by finding one program that will save us $18 million. We will get there by trimming a thousand dollars here and a hundred dollars throughout the corporation we know as the City of Hamilton.
I suggest our leaders lead. I suggest they show the way for all of the rest of the employees of the corporation. I suggest they win the praise and support of their constituents by their cost-cutting and not through their-name-attached sponsorships.
Councillors, if you really love that team, and those kids, and that seniors group, and that neighbourhood association, and multiculturalism in general, then do what the rest of us do in the same situation and spend your own, after-tax dollars (or the nearly 25% of your total compensation that is in non-taxed dollars) to show how philanthropic you are.
You might just learn to like it. Certainly, many Hamiltonians, including this one, have found it to be quite rewarding.
You must be logged in to comment.