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City expense rules need a review

August 25, 2017
City expense rules need a review

New documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation show that in late 2015, city councillor Druh Farrell expensed a $195 Japanese knife and gave it to a staff member as an “employee recognition gift.”

The documents we obtained also show that Farrell expensed a $27 box of tea and gave it to the same employee while giving another employee $243 in gifts; a pair of $100 gift cards at Mountain Equipment Co-op and a $43 “diffuser” (whatever that may be).

Unfortunately, Farrell isn’t the only one at city hall who has been spending your tax dollars rather generously – we found several expenditures by councillors that were excessive, leading us to conclude that it’s not just the provincial legislature that needs to review and tighten its expense rules, Calgary’s city council needs to do the same.

Before we examine some other questionable council expenses, note that Ferrell’s generous gifts were purchased at the end of 2015; a year filled with troubling stories of Calgary businesses laying off thousands of workers and food banks struggling to keep up with demand. Since that time, we’ve also heard many stories about businesses cutting back on “nice to have” expenses, such as their annual spending on Christmas parties.

For instance, the Telus Convention Centre reported a 15 per cent drop in corporate Christmas party bookings in 2015. Similarly, the Jamesons Pub chain developed “recession-friendly” prices (starting at $16 per person) for workplace holiday gatherings.

At city hall, however, the idea of spending restraint has yet to gain serious traction.

In 2016, councillor Evan Woolley spent $184 on books and a backpack for one staff member while spending $358 on a bag for another.

Another example involves councillor Gian-Carlo Carra, who spent $434 on farewell expenses for one of his employees; $155 for a “white hat” and $279 for a five-person going away meal. In an interesting display of personal frugality, he also expensed $6 for his staff member’s farewell card.

Outside government, practices vary when it comes to saying goodbye to an employee. Often you’ll see employees pass the hat to buy a going away gift for a colleague or perhaps the employer pays for a cake or a modest going away lunch.

Had the aforementioned councillors expensed a reasonably priced lunch or bought a $25 book as a small gift – this likely gets a pass. But they didn’t.

They bought some over the top gifts – why? Because they can – it’s your money that they spent, not theirs.

Make no mistake, not every city councillor is spending your tax dollars so generously. Some have been pushing to curtail unnecessary expenses at the city in order to keep property tax increases to a minimum.

The problem is that the expense rules are lax and some council members are clearly taking advantage of the system. While these expenses may be small in the grand scheme of the city’s overall budget, if a councillor is loose with their expense accounts, you can imagine how willingly they’ll agree to larger spending decisions at the city. 

Again, the provincial legislature isn’t the only government that needs to review its expense rules; city hall needs to as well.

 

Colin Craig is the Interim Alberta Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation
This column was published by the Calgary Sun on August 25, 2017

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