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TNRD policy committee per diem expense policy draws heated discussion

Committee directors voted 5-4 against the proposed policy, which will go to the board for consideration
TNRD board of directors (Thompson-Nicola Regional District)

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District policy committee is recommending against a new expense policy that would prevent electoral area directors from claiming a per diem allowance if a meal was already included in a conference or meeting.

Committee directors voted 5-4 on Wednesday, May 18 against the proposed policy, which will go to the board for consideration on June 6. According to a committee report, TNRD staff was tasked with creating the new expense policy to enlist new best practices, as well as incorporate recommendations from the BDO forensic spending audit conducted last year.

The proposed policy would allow directors to expense a daily per diem rate of $100 for meals, $25 for breakfast, $30 for lunch and $45 for dinner. It also suggests per diem rates cannot be claimed for meals that are included as part of meetings, seminars, conferences and conventions.

This drew concerns from Area L (Grasslands) director Ken Gillis, who said some provided meals may not be up to par.

“I absolutely object to the notion that simply because some bagel and biscuit is offered as allegedly breakfast, that we should be precluded from going and getting our own breakfast,” he said.

Area A (Wells Gray Country) director Carol Schaffer agreed, saying the breakfast at the Southern Interior Local Government Association (SILGA) conference “were god-awful,” cold and not “edible as far as I’m concerned.”

She was backed up by Barriere Mayor Ward Stamer, who said the advertised hot breakfast at SILGA never materialized and he had a cold burger.

Deanna Campbell, the TNRD’s general manager of corporate and legislative services, noted a lot of conferences automatically charge meals with registration.

This prompted Area P (Rivers and Peaks) director Mel Rothenburger to raise concerns of potential “double-dipping,” noting that if electoral area directors were able to claim a per diem when they were already offered an inclusive meal, taxpayers would be paying for two meals - for example, two breakfasts.

“The whole purpose of this exercise is to put reasonable restrictions on ourselves that are palatable to the taxpayers…and I get a sense here, Chair, that we’re resisting the stuff instead of promoting it and trying to put restrictions on ourselves,” he said. “I have a concern about the kind of tone that’s coming out of this meeting.”

Committee chair and Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden said taxpayers would probably be happy to see the meals provided to directors at conferences. She noted allergies would be an acceptable reason to eat elsewhere after City of Merritt Mayor Linda Brown noted many events, hotels and conferences may not offer alternatives for allergies or dietary restrictions.

Brown questioned why the policy follows the CRA-accepted rate for mileage, but not the CRA-approved rate of $113.50 for per diem, noting the BDO forensic audit stressed the TNRD was exceeding the limits of the per diems, not that the per diems were too high.

Rothenburger also asked why the policy supported a per diem rather than straight reimbursement of the money spent up to a certain amount. The previous per diem rate ranged from $80 to $100, depending on where the directors were in the province.

He also argued that with a breakfast limit of $25, someone might choose to have a cheaper breakfast and pocket the difference.

City of Kamloops director Denis Walsh also said the per diem charges are “excessive” noting he went out for dinner the night before “and it cost me $26 and I had a drink.” He said there should be two tiers, a lower-tier where no receipt is needed, and a higher tier where a receipt would be required for reimbursement.

Staff noted that from an accounting perspective, the per diem was easier to execute as it can be time-consuming to track down directors for receipts.

Gillis moved to have the policy sub-section amended to say the per diem rate could not be claimed if a meal was included and the person consumed that meal. Schaffer seconded it.

City of Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass said she was embarrassed by the conversation.

“I just trust our staff to know what they’re doing,” she said. “I think that what has just been proposed is just taking more money from the taxpayers that we shouldn’t be taking.”

The motion was passed 5-4, with Area B (Headwaters) director Steven Quinn, Stamer, Schaffer, Gillis and Brown in favour.

Bass, Walsh, Rothenberger and Roden were opposed.