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Victoria city councillors keep close tabs on travel budget

Victoria councillors will keep a close eye on the councillor travel budget this coming year to see if a new direction, and maybe more funds, are needed in the future. “I was just invited to the UN in April, to Geneva, to a day on cities.
Photo - Victoria city hall clock.
Victoria City Hall

Victoria councillors will keep a close eye on the councillor travel budget this coming year to see if a new direction, and maybe more funds, are needed in the future.

“I was just invited to the UN in April, to Geneva, to a day on cities. I don’t feel I can go because our budget is so small for travel,” Mayor Lisa Helps said.

As mayor of the capital, Helps said, she is obliged to attend such conferences as the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities and to attend their functions, as well.

“I have to go to all those banquets, right, even though I’d probably rather sometimes eat a grilled cheese in my hotel room. But that’s part of my job,” Helps said.

But that means she’s also eating up a good chunk of the council’s travel and conference budget.

“I don’t know what to do about that because I also don’t want those types of things take away from council’s travel as well,” Helps said.

She initially suggested a new policy, but ultimately opted to just monitor the situation over the upcoming year.

Compared to the expense numbers coming out of the legislature, Victoria councillor travel allowances almost amount to a rounding error. The current budget is $35,000. That’s for the year, total, to cover the cost of travel for all eight councillors and the mayor.

That could be boosted by another $10,000 this year as staff were asked earlier to report back as part of budget deliberations on the implications of increasing it to $45,000. Helps suggested councillors flag the item during budget deliberations to see if it might need to be boosted further.

The issue arose as Coun. Ben Isitt had submitted requests totalling $4,750 to attend three conferences. Coun. Geoff Young noted that $29,415 of the $35,000 for the coming year has already been allocated.

Young said he raised the issue only because the bulk of the year’s travel budget is already spoken for. “Admittedly, the staff has allowed for six people to go to UBCM [Union of B.C. Municipalities] and four to go to FCM [Federation of Canadian Municipalities] within that, but that’s all.”

He noted that Coun. Marianne Alto had submitted a request for $65 to go to an Urban Development Institute lunch.

“I happen to think councillors should do a lot more of that and that rather than going off to conferences in distant climes, we should spend more time talking to people in our own city,” Young said.

Helps suggested she should draft a policy so that all councillors have a fair shot at money allocated for travel.

But Coun. Jeremy Loveday said the current system is working.

“Generally, we’ve trusted each other that we have the best interests of the city at heart when we go and take these conferences. I think that’s what we should be doing,” Loveday said. “I think that is our policy. We put forward a motion [to approve attendance at a conference] and council either approves it or they don’t.”

Alto said with enough advance planning the costs of attending conferences can be reasonable and significantly minimized.

“It’s not always necessary to stay at the conference hotel,” she said. “It’s not always necessary to attend all of the functions that have very high-priced tickets with the formal dinners and that sort of thing. So there are ways to attend these at a more modest outlay.”

Alto said a discussion should be held on the protocol aspects of the mayor’s position and the possible need for additional funding.

“I think it’s true, like it or not, there’s a different expectation of attendance of not just conferences but events that occur at conferences,” Alto said. “There’s a protocol aspect to the mayor’s position that I believe is different to the protocol aspect of councillors’ positions unless any of us are acting as mayor.”

Councillors approved Isitt’s travel requests.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com