Expense totals highlight procedure, policy issues

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With all the focus on the details of council’s 2014 expense reports, the process review done by staff hasn’t been in the limelight.

In addition to reviewing and flagging issues in council’s expenses, city staff also recommended how policies and procedures around expense claims could be strengthened.

One of those identifies budget planning, management and reporting as areas where improvements can be made, noting there’s no practice in place for council to “review and manage their budget. There are no clear and documented guidelines to ensure council’s budget is within approved budget allocations and what happens if council members go over their allocated budget.”

Some of the need for clarity over policies and procedures can be seen in the example of the council development budget, which is noted in policy as being for professional development activities or events where a member of council attends in an official capacity.

Much of council’s expenses for meetings, conferences and even mileage are currently run through that budget, including meeting fees called ‘per diems’ that councillors are paid in some instances. The development budget is set in policy at $5,000 per councillor per year, along with $7,000 for the mayor.

Last year, however, the totals paid through that budget were $12,628 for Coun. Cathy Heron, $7,880 for Coun. Wes Brodhead, $6,898 for Coun. Cam MacKay, $5,533 for former councillor Gilles Prefontaine, $3,186 for Coun. Sheena Hughes, $1,709 for Coun. Tim Osborne and $1,462 for Mayor Nolan Crouse. The mayor also has a separate budget for expenses to do such things as attend events to represent the city of St. Albert in an official capacity.

Heron, when asked about her high total, pointed out it’s likely driven up by the fact that her per diems for Capital Region Board meetings are paid through that account. The per diems are actually paid by the regional board to the city, and then paid to the councillor – but those revenues aren’t shown on the expense sheet, just the claim.

The city’s finance director wasn’t able to provide details on how much of the council development expenses were various per diems generated by council participation in boards and committees.

Heron said the different types of expenses should be better separated out, noting attending meetings isn’t professional development.

Brodhead pointed out there are even per diems paid to the city for committees he sits on that he’s not allowed to claim back – making him a revenue generator, which isn’t reflected on the expenses.

Expense charges for meetings and other functions shouldn’t be seen as a negative, Brodhead said.

“What it really reflects is the amount of work that you put in to being a councillor … the argument can be made that volunteering for the CRB or for ASCHA or for the Sturgeon Foundation is all extraneous to being a councillor, you can argue that the only time you have to show up for council is Monday night … the problem is that there’s so much more.

“If you want to be a leader in your community, you want to represent St. Albert to all of the rest of these organizations that actually impact the community, you have to volunteer, you have to participate, and when you do so there are costs … but it also reflects the fact that you’re participating,” Brodhead said.

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