THE COST OF A COUNCILLOR: Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Vic Pennisi said councillors should be reimbursed, within limits.
THE COST OF A COUNCILLOR: Southern Downs Regional Council Mayor Vic Pennisi said councillors should be reimbursed, within limits.

Councillors vote for travel allowance in lieu of pay rise

THE question of councillor expenses sparked a heated debate at Warwick Town Hall this morning when several new policy proposals were put forward by the Southern Downs Regional Council.

Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi said councillors should be reimbursed “a fair and reasonable amount of money” as it pertains to travel costs.

“If I was working for (Deputy Mayor) Ross Bartley and he said I needed to plough a paddock, but I had to provide my own fuel, most people would walk away from that job,” Cr Pennisi said.

“Councillors pay their own superannuation and their own tax, and they work very very hard for the money they receive.

“They go over and above the call of duty to represent people.”

The change would be in direct contrast to the previous term of councillors, who voted to accept a pay rise but forego claiming any of the expense allowance, paying for all travel costs out of their own pocket.

Councillor Jo McNally, who sat during the previous term, said she was concerned travel expenses would “blow out” and advocated for greater checks and balances when it came to councillors claiming kilometres.

“One councillor could rack up $25,000 and above,” Cr McNally said.

“Everyone is patting themselves on the back for not taking the (pay rise this year), but this is not fair.

“I’m pretty sure residents wouldn’t like that.”

In the 2013/14 financial year Cr Pennisi claimed over $20,000 for personal travel and mobile expenses.

Councillor expense claims for that year totalled $54,000, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in wages, prompting readers of the Daily News to vote ‘no’ in a poll asking whether councillors should be able to claim expenses.

Today the mayor proposed that, in lieu of the pay rise, a travel allowance capped at $5000 would both remove the financial burden of councillors’ travel while preventing overspending.

“I don’t believe it should be open slather,” he said.

“Otherwise it could get very, very costly.

“I drove 90,000 kilometres (in the 2013/14 financial year) and if I claimed every kilometre it would have been $64,000 claimed in that year, which is totally unacceptable.”

Not everyone, however, supported capped spending.

Councillor Stephen Tancred said he would be “proud” if the annual financial report revealed substantial councillor expenses, because “it means they’ll (have) been active”.

Cr Tancred used the example of Cr Pennisi’s spending in 2014, stating, “he did work for our ratepayers, he did it and he claimed it”.

Councillor Cynthia McDonald, too, was against a cap on spending.

“Apparently I’ve got a lot of extravagant expenses going on here, but I actually don’t,” she said.

“If I did spend quite an amount of money it’s probably because I'm talking to constituents, travelling around the region and doing my job.

“I’m not here to rip off ratepayers.”

Ultimately councillors voted in favour of capped travel expenses, enabling councillors to claim up to $5000 in personal annual travel expenses in addition to the use of council cars, of which operating expenses are paid in full by council coffers.