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Amended reimbursement policy could lead to more confusion

Athabasca County eliminates reimbursement over set cost, opens door for councillors to meet with elected officials without prior approval
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Athabasca County Coun. Tracy Holland requested there be additional clarification surrounding meal reimbursements for councillors and administration at the June 14 regular Athabasca County council meeting.

ATHABASCA — A long-standing policy, like per diem reimbursement policies used in other municipalities, businesses, non-profits, and unions, has been amended, again, by Athabasca County council 

At the June 14 regular meeting, Coun. Tracy Holland expressed confusion over the wording in Policy 2011 – Meal Costs for Council and Administration which had been sent to administration for clarification at an earlier meeting and came back with suggestions for minor changes.

First, Holland asked for a clarification between 'meal ticket' and 'meal receipt' and recommended 'meal expense claim' be used instead.

CAO Rod Risling explained the expense claim form is different from a meal receipt, also described as a meal ticket, which is what you get after paying for your meal. 

“Typically, the expense claim you actually sign at the bottom. If you have a receipt, you sign the receipt itself,” said Risling. “So, you as the claimant wanting to be reimbursed sign the back of the receipt.” 

If there isn’t a receipt available, the person making the expense claim is paid a set rate of $12.00 for breakfast, $20 for lunch, and $25 for dinner with a mileage rate of $0.61 per km round trip. 

Holland then asked for clarity on the word 'reasonable' in the policy as it relates to meals that are over the allowable to claim, and who determines what is reasonable.

Reasonable means reasonable, Risling replied. "If there was no meal available at the set amount and a receipt was presented for $31 instead of $25, the higher amount claimed would be paid. He also noted at events where a meal is provided, no one can claim a meal even if they chose not to eat it, and alcohol is never reimbursed. 

“If you were to go out for a $200 steak that might not ... the direction is to be close to the ticket,” reeve Brian Hall tried to explain. 

“Right. So, this leaves it a little bit open," said Holland. “It doesn't confirm who decides what's reasonable, how that is defined, and allows for scrutiny, I guess you can say, and questions. And are we going to bring this to council when there's questions, so I just think that needs to be a little more clear.” 

Coun. Natasha Kapitaniuk said she was happy leaving it up to whomever signed the cheques. 

“I would suggest that the signing authorities be trusted with the decision on what is reasonable,” she said. “I feel that if they're trusted to sign checks for the county they are trusted to decide if that $35 burger was worth it or not.” 

Hall noted all councillor expense claims are posted online

“Ultimately, your expenses get posted and you're accountable to our ratepayers and the public,” he said. “So, if you are out at a conference and the only meal options are $5 or $10 more than the no-receipt amount, then perhaps that's the reasonable amount for that location.” 

Holland pushed back saying administration expense claims are not published making the need for a definitive policy even more necessary and noted recently a councillor had a claim rejected. 

“Just for the record, (it) didn’t meet the policy,” Hall interjected to clarify why it was rejected. 

The policy was amended to read, “It is expected that meals with receipts will be reasonably close to the rates established. If the meal amount is over the established rate, the established rate will be paid.” 

In a 5-4 vote it was decided that receipts will no longer be required and a maximum meal rate will be established.

A second amendment added councillors to the ‘special circumstances’ list defining who can claim meal expenses related to meeting with government officials, dignitaries, “or other persons when it is expected that such a gesture will have a potential beneficial effect for Athabasca County” was passed unanimously. 

Typically, councillors and administration in any municipality are discouraged from meeting with government officials, dignitaries, or “others” outside of a formal request to the mayor or reeve who will bring it back to council to decide who will be a part of the delegation or meeting.  

There is also no clarification on who determines if the meeting “will have a potential beneficial effect for Athabasca County” and therefore qualifies for reimbursement or not. 

The completely amended policy was accepted with a 7-2 vote. 

Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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