Should Vancouver city councillors get a five-fold increase to their budgets?

NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato doesn’t think so, despite mayor’s push to increase budgets from $6,000 to $30,000

12th and Cambie

As regular readers will have read this week, Mayor Kennedy Stewart believes the city’s 10 councillors should get a boost in their “discretionary budgets” from $6,000 to $30,000.

That would mean finding $300,000 in city coffers this year, which the mayor said Monday at a news conference could come from a contingency fund.

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I use “could” because the mayor’s motion still has to go before council next week for debate. And, as you will read near the bottom of this piece, at least one city councillor isn’t keen on a boost to her budget.

In the meantime, you probably have questions.

What’s the rationale for the increase? Why $30,000?

I’ll get to the answers in a few sentences, but first wanted to give you an idea what that six grand is allowed to be spent on, according to the city’s website.

Here it is: “communications expenses, fees for consulting or other contracted services, costs of research and information gathering and costs of community outreach and events.”

Councillors past and present whom I’ve spoken to used the $6,000 primarily to hire someone to do research. You should know the $6,000 per councillor discretionary budget idea only came into play a few years ago, according to my research.

So to the answers to those two questions…

Beyond the mayor’s comments Monday that “councillors in Vancouver are very, very under supported when compared to other councillors across the country,” I was looking for some independent analysis that supported the mayor’s request.

I waited until his motion was posted on the city’s website, but didn’t find that analysis. That’s unless you consider the mention of the huge bump Toronto city councillors received in their budgets to $482,000 from $241,000.

But keep in mind, Toronto has a ward system and recently reduced the number of councillors serving the city from 44 to 25. Aside from that info, I didn’t see any language in the mayor’s motion that relied on studies related to Vancouver council.

And there’s been a few over the years, although they’ve focused on increases to councillors’ salaries instead of discretionary budgets. But in February 2016, city staff made a presentation to the council of the day that led to the implementation of the $6,000-each discretionary budgets.

There was no report that accompanied the presentation, so the information comes mainly in point form via a PowerPoint presentation, which noted 10 councillors were supported by four full-time staff who provide “basic administrative support.”

That support includes maintaining councillors’ calendars related to city business, responding to invitations to events and arranging meetings. Answering phone calls, taking messages, managing expenses and records management are other duties.

The presentation said the city clerk conducted a review of council support that included interviewing councillors and obtaining comparative information from Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax and Winnipeg.

“Generally, councillors in those municipalities receive support across a broader range of functions,” according to one of the presentation slides, which defined that support as management of constituent issues and correspondence, along with research and outreach.

The review found the level of staffing and funding was greater in those municipalities, with up to two full-time equivalent staff per councillor compared to 0.5 full-time equivalent in Vancouver.

Staff made three recommendations.

They were:

  • Add another full-time assistant at an estimated annual cost of $67,000. That happened.
  • Establish a discretionary fund (at the time the request was for $5,000 per councillor, but ended up being $6,000).
  • Hire an “information officer” at an estimated annual cost of $73,000 whose mandate would be “to enhance correspondence management.” That happened.

Now to that question about how the mayor landed on the $30,000 figure for each councillor. I received a reply to that question via email from Alvin Singh, the mayor’s manager of communications.

“He arrived at that figure after conversations with councillors about what their needs were and the challenges they were having,” Singh wrote. “He made an educated estimate about what would make the most sense, knowing that it was a starting point for discussion and that councillors would be free to make changes during debate.”

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Vancouver city council at work in the chamber at city hall. Photo Dan Toulgoet

NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato doesn’t recall having a direct conversation with the mayor about the need to increase councillors’ discretionary budgets. And her NPA colleague, Sarah Kirby-Yung, remarked on Twitter that she learned of the mayor’s motion at his Monday news conference.

Dominato said she doesn’t support an increase to the councillors’ budgets. She acknowledges her role is demanding but said she would prefer to focus discussions on affordable housing, city planning and transportation.

“I don’t believe it’s the time right now to be giving civic politicians a five-fold increase in discretionary spending, especially when we just increased property taxes by 4.5 per cent,” she said, noting recent approval of the $1.5-billion operating budget also called for an independent panel to review the city’s spending and a new process to develop next year’s budget. “I don’t understand the urgency.”

Dominato, who is one of eight rookie councillors, shares an assistant with Kirby-Yung. Dominato said her assistant has been booking meetings, following up on correspondence and doing a number of administrative tasks and support, “which I appreciate and value.”

Dominato said she appreciates the spirit of the mayor’s motion but believes if councillors need more staff, then such a request should be part of the regular budget process and based on assessment of need.

“You have to work hard in these roles,” she said. “There will probably always be more demands on your time than you ever have time. But it is public service and I think we need to be thoughtful about our taxpayer dollars, and how we use them.”

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry told me earlier in the week that he supports the mayor’s request for the increase to $30,000. So does that mean his two Green colleagues support it, too?

And is Dominato’s position supported by her four fellow NPA councillors?

Answers to come likely Wednesday, when the mayor’s motion is debated in the council chamber.

Could be a doozy.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings  

 

 

 

 

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