Who’s Not Watching Every Penny?

Just how closely is Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur and most of City Council “watching every penny” when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars?

Reece Sellin makes some interesting discoveries on how Council is spending your money.

Fort Saskatchewan Mayor Gale Katchur

What’s it called when you say one thing and then do another?

If you listen to Mayor Gale Katchur, things sure do sound pretty good. Taxes go up a few bucks? Sure enough, there’s Katchur, jumping at the opportunity to tell us just how Council “failed” us. She is seemingly not upset at herself, mind you. No, you see, that failure is on City Council. Or, when that maybe doesn’t sound so good, because that could include Councillor Frank Garritsen, her self-admitted “110% supporter,” she’s upset at “administration.”

Passing the buck so you don’t have to take responsibility for your own actions is a classic political game. Pointing fingers at those who can’t completely defend themselves is an even better game.

After all, one would assume City staff can’t say a public peep about Katchur’s comments — if they did it’d very possibly earn them a free extended vacation… straight to the unemployment office. And of course other vocal councillors can just be dismissed as politicians with their own agendas. You can even tell the media something like this: “I know local government is a different animal than business, but we need to live under the same guidelines and we need to make sure we’re watching every penny that we’re spending.”

Or, if you’re Gale Katchur, you say it exactly like that. Word for word.

So the thinking goes you’re watching every nickel and dime. Because, after all, isn’t that what running City finances like a business implies? Carefully tracking every penny and sticking to budgets, line by line, department by department?

And then you decide to file your paperwork on January 3rd to run again for Mayor. And if all goes well, get elected for a third term this October. Mission accomplished. Or is it?

Inevitably, someone cries foul, and then, maybe, just maybe, the game is up.

WATCHING EVERY PENNY?

If you didn’t attend or watch the February 28th City Council meeting, you missed a couple of great quotes about how Council spends your money.

During debate on whether Council needs still more transparency in their budgets (hint: I think it does), Stew Hennig said: “I guess I just have a problem with [how] we’re being trusted to help produce a budget that’s near $100,000,000 and yet not trusted to spend, or to be careful with how we spend, $1,200 of City money for promoting the City and ourselves.”

I’m not sure if Stew is into the Bible. But, hearing this, I was reminded of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager from the Gospel of Luke. The key point there is: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Maybe we should all take that one to heart.

Then there was Ed Sperling, who said: “When we look at the dollars, the one that really jumps out at me is the conferences,” referring to the many events, typically involving costly travel and registration fees, that many city councillors attend, spending our tax dollars in the process. Thank you, Ed, you’re right. And I’ll come back to that one.

COUNCIL PROMOTIONAL FUNDS

Maybe it’s history repeating itself, but I remember this topic, namely how councillors spent their then $1,000 (now $1,200) yearly promotional fund, being brought to my attention in 2013. Who brought it up? Councillor Frank Garritsen.

Apparently, Frank’s concern then was that the promotional fund was being spent foolishly, although (as is still the case) few firm rules existed on its use.

The only real conclusion I came to at the time was that 41% of the promotional fund money spent, in the twenty-seven months I reviewed, went to golf tournament registrations, golf balls, and gift cards for charity golf tournaments.

I left it to readers to make their own conclusions. We even listed the entirety of the promotional expenses that were disclosed to us, in our newspaper.

I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same. Frank is still worried about the promo fund, it seems. Now, his new major issue seems to be that some councillors (who may be seeking re-election) are buying pens with their names on them. Tsk, tsk!

That practice, I may add, was admirably defended by Stew Hennig moments after Frank brought it up; hopefully thereby ending what could’ve been the “Pengate Scandal of 2017.”

But nobody mentioned the elephant in the room.

The fact is this: even if every councillor maxed out their $1,200 promotional budget, pushing the yearly total to $7,200, their spending would be dwarfed by the “promotional” spending of Mayor Katchur.

IPADS, CAMERAS AND GIFT CARDS

So, what, exactly, does the Mayor spend her promotional funds on?

Well, Frank Garritsen should take note: “crown jewel” pens with “black velvet” pouches are certainly on Mayor Katchur’s list. So are a whole flock of sheep-related items. But, a line-by-line review of publicly-posted council expenses reveals she also directs that much more expensive items be purchased for her “promotional inventory.”

Among these are iPads costing between $299 and $399 each. So too are Canon SLR camera packages at $379.43 a pop. Then there’s the gift cards. Many are in $25 and $50 denominations to local eating establishments such as Original Joes, Sawmill, Boston Pizza, Second Cup, The Downtown Diner and The Atlantic Kitchen.

Thousands of dollars of these gift cards and electronic items combined were purchased for the Mayor’s “promotional inventory,” using City taxpayers’ money, in the final week of December 2013 alone. And, another December spending spree occurred in 2014. On the very last day of that year, reviewing the publicly-posted records, we discover the Mayor sent her assistant to buy still more iPads and still more Boston Pizza gift cards.

You may wonder what happens to these tablets, cameras, and gift cards? It appears that they are bought for “charity fundraisers,” but the public has no easy way of learning to what specific fundraisers they go. Seemingly, they’re purchased at the Mayor discretion, and given out at her bidding. And, it’s not clear if there’s any public accounting of what occurs to them.

The situation is such that The Bite has had to submit a Freedom of Information (FOIP) request to the City — the results of which were not available as of press time — to determine what documentation exists, tracking when, where, and to who these electronics and gift cards were given away. Yes, this advertising-free publication has to spend nearly $700, based on the City’s fee estimate, to find out how council has spent this and other money.

THE MAYOR’S PROMOTIONS BUDGET

So, just how much in total is the Mayor supposed to be spending?

“Request #11-0004: Councillors’ per Diem/Promotional Items,” from the 2016 budget helps answer that question. We learn that “Budgeted amounts for [the Mayor’s promotional fund] have been exceeded consistently in recent years,” supposedly due to community requests for promotional items. Apparently this caused the Mayor — the same Mayor assuring us that she’s “watching every penny” — to ask for an additional $2,000 per year in promotional fund spending, pushing that budget item to over $22,000.

But I wonder if community “requests” are the whole motivation about what is driving so much promotional spending? Here’s two more facts many are likely not aware of:

First, in 2013 and 2014, the Mayor’s assistant at the time visited Staples and local restaurants, buying thousands of dollars in electronics and gift cards, during literally the last week of both fiscal years. In 2013, at least, the Mayor would have been under budget if not for this. Why the last minute spending?

Second, City-issued Visa credit cards were not used for most of those purchases. Instead, the assistant utilized what appears to be her personal American Express card, claiming a City reimbursement later. On the big-ticket electronics purchases, the assistant also seemingly collected Air Miles rewards points.

Keep in mind, as I understand it, rewards points credit cards are not issued to staff and Council as a matter of City policy — non-rewards Visa credit cards are issued instead. So, why are personal credit cards being used for City expenses?

You may be saying at this point, “well, about $22,000 per year maybe isn’t a big deal. We’re a growing city. Surely other Mayors spend this much on promotions?” If we choose Edmonton as our point of comparison, though, the answer is no.

Yes, you’re understanding this correctly. It’s my understanding that Mayor Iveson, the Mayor of the 5th largest municipality in Canada, leader of a city of over 900,000 people, spends less than Gale Katchur on promotions: $10,608.42 in his first full year as Mayor, and $11,749.66 in his next. What about 2016? Although final yearly numbers were not available at press time, by the end of the third quarter, Iveson hadn’t even hit $3,000 in promotional spending.

COUNCIL CONFERENCES

Would it also surprise you to learn that local taxpayers also seem to be partially subsidizing vacations?

Indeed, it seems Councillor Sperling was certainly on the right track to bring up conference spending at the February 28th Council Meeting (although one has to wonder why this seemingly wasn’t a topic of substantial discussion years ago).

Two conferences are illustrative. The first of these is the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) annual conference that was hosted in Niagara Falls at the end of May 2014.

City taxpayers were on the hook for $19,549.63 by my count for that one. Every city councillor and the Mayor, with the exception of Arjun Randhawa, attended.

There’s often a question of exactly what is accomplished by city officials attending various conferences provincially, nationally and even internationally. I feel one should ask exactly what value there is in the information gathered or the networking accomplished.

It also seems fair to ask why basically the entirety of Council, especially in a smaller city like Fort Saskatchewan, has to attend conferences in faraway places at significant cost to local taxpayers. How many eyes and ears do we really need to bring back information?

But, a closer look at Council’s attendance at the 2014 FCM conference in Niagara Falls suggests to me that learning and networking to be better city councillors aren’t necessarily the only draw for conference attendees. What else is, you may ask? To me, it seems about turning conferences into personal vacations.

Mayor Katchur as well as Councillors Blizzard, Garritsen and Sperling all brought their spouses along. From the public record, we know that their spouses got to attend various “companion” events put on by the FCM, such as a historical tour of the Niagara Region and a “deluxe” wine tasting event.

But, don’t think that means the Fort taxpayer was completely off the hook for spouses’ entertainment. Although, normally, local paid dinners or events attended by councillors’ spouses are reimbursed, not entirely so at this conference.

That’s right, from my in-depth review, it seems that you and I picked up the tab for Wayne Katchur, Len Blizzard, and Heather Garritsen’s $140-a-plate “Enchanted Evening Gala” dinner. City taxpayers also paid for the rental cars (and parking) that transported them from the airports they flew to (more on that shortly), as well as their hotel rooms.

And, while one may say that those additional costs would be the same whether or not a councillor attended alone, a closer look suggests that may not be accurate, either. After all, why were four rental cars required to transport five city councillors and the Mayor between the airport and Niagara Falls?

Well, in the case of the Blizzards, it would seem they needed their own vehicle because, unlike the rest of Council, they decided to fly into London, Ontario rather than Toronto. My guess as to why they would do that? Could it be that it’s far closer to their former hometown of Sarnia?

The Blizzards stayed in Ontario an extra five and a half days after the FCM conference ended, utilizing the same vehicle the whole time. Oh, and we also paid $24.91 per day for parking that vehicle while they were at Niagara.

Ditto with Frank Garritsen — he and his wife, Heather, apparently made a holiday out of the trip, too, meaning that although Sheldon Bossert could catch a ride to Niagara Falls with the Garritsens, he couldn’t catch one back to the airport. Notably, Bossert’s taxi expense was much lower than renting and parking another vehicle.

Although, like Blizzard, Garritsen reimbursed the personal portion of his car rental fees, we nonetheless paid $24.91 per day in parking, seemingly only for the convenience of him having a vehicle that was totally unnecessary to have for the conference itself.

A third rental vehicle — an expense also billed to the city — was rented by Ed Sperling. On his personal credit card, mind you, and while he also personally collected Aeroplan rewards miles on the rental. We paid for that vehicle’s parking, too, by the way.

Seemingly, Stew Hennig carpooled with him. That may be wise, considering Stew probably should be pinching a few City pennies considering he also attended FCM conferences in 2013 in Vancouver and 2015 in Edmonton. (Sheldon Bossert, by the way, was the only one from City Council who attended the not-as-touristy destination of Winnipeg for the FCM conference in 2016.)

Now, one may at first think that the fourth rental vehicle, that one for Gale Katchur, makes sense. After all, a close look reveals she arrived at the FCM event a day early, to attend a Capital Region Board “symposium” that was apparently being held the day prior. No way to carpool or optimize when you’re arriving earlier than everyone else. But in this case, too, the numbers don’t seem to add up for me.

What am I referring to? Simply yet another fact: Despite apparently attending the Capital Region Board “Regional Symposium” and subsequent FCM conference, somehow the Katchurs racked up 1,341km on their Grey Chrysler 200 rental vehicle, rented on the same personal (non-City) credit card used to book their flight to Niagara Falls.

How is it that the 254km total (127km each way), round-trip between Niagara Falls and the Pearson Airport Avis car rental depot led to an additional 1,087km (675mi) of driving? And, if the entirety of the use of the City-paid rental vehicle expense was for City purposes, why did Katchur bill only $47.63 for 34.44L in fuel? Are we to believe the Katchur’s rented Chrysler 200 — rated by the EPA as a 24mpg vehicle — miraculously achieved a 91mpg fuel efficiency?

CHARLOTTETOWN

And this brings up another conference: the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) Conference & Exhibition in Charlottetown, PEI between September 27 and 30th, 2015, and attended solely by the Katchurs. Oddities, to me, emerge there, too.

First, the flight is booked via a travel agent on a personal credit card, rather than Katchur’s city-issued card. That travel agent, I might add, happens to offer RBC Rewards points with their bookings.

Second, the city is on the hook yet again for a car rental, valet parking and fuel. And here the km counts come into question yet again. The Enterprise Rent a Car Depot from where the Katchurs obtained their Ford Edge Crossover is less than 9km from the hotel where they stayed. Yet, somehow, the rental car was returned with 398kms (247 mi) added to the odometer.

Why was the city on the hook for a rental car? After already paying nearly $5,000 for Katchur’s conference registration, hotel, and other fees at this conference? Was it because Gale and Wayne Katchur decided to stay an extra day and, yes, you guessed it, make a vacation out of it?

Of course, one could also question whether the vacation even commenced after the conference was over. Why do I say that? Well, yet again, the City seemingly picked up the tab for Wayne Katchur’s gala attendance — a $185 expense. But we also happen to know that the Mayor was shopping on a conference day. Her City visa shows an accidental (and reversed) charge of $573 at the Lady Slipper, at 65 Queen Street in Charlottetown.

WHO’S ACTUALLY WATCHING EVERY PENNY?

Reviewing conference expenses line-by-line reveals something interesting. One member of Council appears to actually take spending to heart, and normally does not attend far-flung conferences. Who is this councillor who appears to be actually watching every penny? Councillor Arjun Randhawa.

That’s right, the numbers prove to me that the youngest member of council appears to be exercising the most fiscal maturity and prudence.

I’m reminded Randhawa said, before voting “No” on the proposed 2017 budget: “As I look at this organization, I see an organization in financial disarray, that has archaic means of looking through its own books, that struggles with simplistic financial goals. Year after year, auditors come in and they highlight a variety of shortcomings… those experts find things like highly manual processes, lack of integration, inconsistencies in the way budgets are prepared and presented, and in some instances mistakes such as internal spreadsheets not matching invoices… Residents expect better and they deserve better.”

I agree. Residents do expect better. They do deserve better. And above all, they deserve word matching deed. Fortunately, in October, we will have the opportunity to give our opinion on whose public statements match their public actions. I’m willing to bet residents will remember who was really “watching every penny” when they mark off their ballots. //

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