For Councillors, More Money for Expenses – and Maybe More Transparency

Dublin City Councillors will soon have the option of taking home a bit more money.

But some say they might not bother, and that a new system for allowances doesn’t fix the shortage of resources that is the main bane of local representatives.

At the moment, Dublin city councillors get annual unvouched, untaxed allowances totalling  €7,188.45 on top of their salary of €16,565.

That’s made up of €1,665.15 for the travel allowance, €2,856.85 for the subsistence allowance, and €2,666.45 for what’s referred to as an “elected member’s fixed allowance”.

This fixed allowance is now set for an increase, from €2,666.45 to a maximum of €5,000. But there’s a catch.

Unlike the previous unvouched system, this new allowance will be fully vouched, meaning that councillors – should they opt for the €5,000 maximum – will have to keep track of their receipts and file them with the local authority in order to claim expenses.

Up to now, councillors were not required to log stringently all the expenses that they were claiming under the fixed allowance.

Whether or not councillors will sign up to the optional new system, and whether it’s a necessary intervention is debatable, though.

A Vouched Increase

Councillors have enough to deal with, says Fine Gael Councillor Paddy Smyth.

More administrative work such as keeping and filing receipts would only delay them in their work, he says. “I suspect this could be a long, drawn-out thing.”

Smyth works full-time as a GP. “(…) I don’t think I’ve ever submitted much for anything since I’ve been on Dublin City Council, so sitting down and figuring out with a calculator just how many miles I’ve done is just not worth it for me.”

His time could be better spent elsewhere, he said.

The new system, which is due to come into effect on 1 July 2017, is optional for now. Local councillors can stick with the unvouched sum of €2,666.45 or keep track of their expenses, file their receipts and submit them to Dublin City Council for up to €2,333.55 extra per annum.

According to a letter sent by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to local authority chief executives last week, the move aims to address the changed landscape of local authorities since the local government reforms of 2014.

Between then and now, the number of local councillors has decreased by 41 percent, from 1,627 to 949, according to the letter. An increase in the fixed allowance is supposed to ease the burden caused by this decrease and larger electoral areas.

But that system could be abused, says Fine Gael’s Smyth. “My fear is that the €5,000 will be pretty much seen as a target,” he says. “People [councillors] could go, ‘Now I’ve to spend €5,000 on flyers and distribution.'”

It won’t necessarily solve the broader issue of councillors’ workloads and time constraints, either. “If you really want to help councillors, then provide them with staff,” says Smyth.

“Provide them with, say, three mornings a week of clerical staff or provide them with somebody who can do a bit of research, provide them with someone who’s a dedicated liaison between them and the council,” he said.

Under the new, vouched system, the money could be spent on a number of items: leaflets and newsletter distribution, hiring rooms for clinics and other meetings, and the purchase of secretarial support.

The Transparency Question

Aside from the question of councillors’ resources, there is a question of whether these expenses should be more transparent and available to the public.

Independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley says he’s unsure whether he’ll opt for the increase.

“Essentially it corresponds, or it’s going to correspond, with the Dáil level, which, in principle, is a good idea (…),” he says.

McGinley says his biggest spend is on advertising and that the increase won’t dramatically change things for some councillors. Instead of the fixed-allowance increase, McGinley suggests better training for councillors.

But for now, what’s coming is the optional vouched increase in the fixed allowance.

And it’s unclear how the vouched system will be administered, says Enid O’ Dowd, a chartered accountant, who runs the Chartered Accountants Voluntary Advice Centre (CAVA) in the Citizens Information Centre in Rathmines.

At the end of the year, only 10 percent of TDs in the Houses of the Oireachtas are chosen by an external auditor and asked to provide invoices and receipts, says O’Dowd, who has in the past questioned the lack of accountability and transparency surrounding TDs’ expenses.

O’Dowd queries whether there will be an external auditor who can keep a watchful eye on councillors’ expenses and the receipts they submit. If not, who will be auditing the system?

A spokesperson in Dublin City Council’s press office says the council has a plan. “Original receipts would be submitted by councillors up to the limit and monies paid out on that basis retrospectively,” the spokesperson said.

Dublin City Council also plans to set up a system to track these amounts, so that nobody is overpaid, said the spokesperson.

It’s unclear, though, whether the receipts the councillors submit in order to claim the increased allowance will fall under the Freedom of Information Act, or be available to inspect.

The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government’s press office did not respond to a query seeking clarification before deadline.

(TDs political expenses have been classified as private papers and so the Oireachtas Commission refused to release them under FOI, despite efforts by Journalist Ken Foxe to challenge this.)

O’Dowd says that if local authorities are bringing in more transparency in councillors’ expenses, then the Dáil would do well to consider doing the same thing for TDs.

“Part of their allowance will be fully vouched, that’s the important part,” says O’ Dowd. “If there’s some improvement in the councillor’s [expense transparency] why should there not be in the TDs?”

Help Needed

People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh says her biggest expense, as a councillor, changes, but quite often it’s the hiring of rooms for meetings and clinics.

MacVeigh says she’s unsure about the decision to up the fixed allowance for councillors. Instead, bigger questions need to be asked.

“What do councillors actually do in their day-to-day work?” she says. “You ask that question and then you can extend it: what do you need to be able to best do that work? I’m not sure if this is the right way to respond to that by increasing expenses,” she says.

More resources might be a better solution, says MacVeigh. The work of a councillor has changed over the last few years, and for some it’s tougher.

“Obviously a lot of councillors would have a connection to bigger parties. But for smaller parties and independents they don’t have that bigger network of resources,” she says. “It’s a very different question to ask and answer of different councillors.”

The optional increase in the fixed allowance is problematic, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.

“I think the system that they’ve developed will be so cumbersome that the vast majority of councillors will stick with the two and a half thousand,” he says. “From talking to councillors around the country, I think they will too.”

Councillors’ expenses are often small sums of €10 here, €20 there, says Lacey. His biggest spend tends to be leaflets. Parking around his electoral area is costly too.

Instead of an expenses increase, Lacey reckons it would be best to increase councillors’ salaries.

“Reduce the number of councillors, increase the salary,” he says. “That’s putting the councillors, then, on some sort of public-service scale.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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