Giving council the time off to go buy their own lunches would actually cost the city more than the current practice of paying for lunch and forgoing the break.
By Mark Robbins
Published March 13, 2017
You would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about it. The City of Hamilton spent $33,000 last year giving free lunches to elected officials. Councillor Donna Skelly for one, is outraged at the waste. Councillors are taking a free lunch on the taxpayers dime, all at a time when the city faces a "budget crisis". Councillors are literally getting fat off of the hard-earned money of taxpayers. Oh the humanity!
With 16 elected officials for the municipality, each member is responsible for about $2000 of the Lunchgate Scandal. Breaking that down by number of working days in the year, the outrage is worth about $8 per lunch.
But wait: this cost also includes meals given to community volunteers who happen to be at these meetings. Since there are usually more volunteers than elected officials, at least a 2-1 ratio, what we are talking about is closer to $3 per working day that the municipality sets aside for feeding councillors.
At $3 per head, this gravy train, if there really is one, looks more like poutine than roast beef.
Certainly, Lunchgate is about an insignificant amount of money. Of total municipal expenditures in the city of Hamilton last year, the entire lunch program represented about 0.00153 percent of the city's budget. The time that was dedicated to responding to Councillor Skelly's tempest in a teapot likely cost more in city resources than the entire manufactured "Lunchgate" scandal was worth in the first place.
To put that number in a different form, Lunchgate cost each Hamiltonian about $0.06 last year. You wouldn't stop to pick up that amount of money off the ground.
For some, Lunchgate is less about the actual cost of the scandal then why elected officials get lunch while every other working stiff has to buy their own. This is worth asking. Indeed, even working stiffs on other city councils do not all get free lunches. Guelph, Toronto and Windsor used to offer the same lunch program as Hamilton but eliminated it several years back.
I wonder to what extent eliminating that program was pennywise and pound foolish. Elected officials are given $3 worth of free food to give up their lunch breaks. If we assume councillors work 60 hours a week, which most do, then their time is worth roughly $30 an hour. Giving council the time off to go buy their own lunches would actually cost the city more than the current practice of paying for lunch and forgoing the break.
The Hamilton Spectator has helpfully suggested that city councillors should still be given lunch in exchange for their breaks, but instead of the current practice of providing the food, the city should send around a jar to collect change so councillors pay their own share. This way, councillors still get work through their breaks, but they themselves will pay for the privilege.
Seriously? Hamilton is getting noticed again as a vibrant and important place in a country that is receiving global accolades for being well organized and forward-thinking. Shaking down politicians for their spare change? Somehow feels unbecoming.
Being an elected official is already not an easy job and the taxpayers have spent the last 40 years pillaging politicians salaries for any benefit good enough to evoke jealousy.
The gravy train is now a piece of history. At $30 an hour, a Hamilton city councillor now earns roughly the same as the entry-level urban planner that works for them. That means the boss's boss's boss earns much less than their staff.
That's before considering the amount of time and money that goes into running for office in the first place, usually tens of thousands of dollars per election attempt. When considering that over 90 percent of election campaigns end in failure, it's hard to imagine a worse return for your time and money than getting into politics.
And that's a problem.
Few disagree that we need better people running for politics and restoring the appeal of a political career is not something can be done overnight. But witch hunts over petty cash, like Lunchgate, just adds insult to injury for folks that are already given shockingly little in terms of respect or pay.
If city councillors want to put in overtime, we should pitch in for some double-doubles and box of donuts and be thankful for the privilege.
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