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Aaron McKenna: Ask your council candidates to pledge to publish receipts for their expenses

The only way to affect real change in politics is at the ballot box. Ask you local council candidate whether they plan to voluntarily publish receipts for their expenses. If they will, tell them you’ll vote for them. If not, good luck and goodbye.

Aaron McKenna

THE SCALE OF negative reaction from politicians to proposals to reform their pay, perks and expenses is a handy inverse indication of how beneficial changes would be to the taxpayer. When a sitting Fine Gael councillor called one of the parties own candidates for next years local elections a “tosser” who “couldn’t be taken seriously at all” after mooting the idea that councillors might vouch for their expenses, voters should sit up and take note.

Noel Rock is a Fine Gael candidate in north Dublin who has pledged not to take any tax free and unvouched expenses during his term if he is elected. In so doing he has shone a light onto the gravy train that costs the taxpayer about €28 million per year, and elicited quite a reaction.

Being a councillor costs money. Travelling around one’s constituency, meeting people and helping to solve their issues or bring meaningful input to the management of the council would cost a person a lot if there was no pay or support for councillors at all.

What Noel Rock has kicked off a debate about is precisely how councillors receive this money. In 2011, the last year of data available, councillors around the country received an average of €31,600 each in payments; some taxable income, but much in unvouched and tax free expenses alongside salary top ups for holding various offices and committee roles. The highest earning councillor in the country, George Jones of Fine Gael in Wicklow, managed to get €83,000 in payments in 2011.

Representational allowance

Since 2002 councillors received an annual €16,724 payment called a “representational allowance”, which is paid and taxed as salary for this job, which is intended to be part time. There are top ups given to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, which are rotating and largely ceremonial roles that the parties pass around to ensure that everyone gets a go.

In Fingal County Council, for example, in 2012 the Mayoral roles were shared between four Labour members; with Fine Gael getting much of the perk in 2013. Cllr’s Gerry McGuire and Cian O’Callaghan got to wear the bling and receive €32,892 in representational allowance for their troubles. Cllr’s Ken Farrell and Peggy Hammill had to make do with Deputy Mayorships and €24,379 each.

Chairing boards and committees is also lucrative. Cllr Tom Kelleher, again in Fingal, received €12,000 for chairing two such posts, with the money again being taxable income.

What isn’t taxable is the ridiculous amounts of expenses that councillors can claim, largely without needing to provide a receipt. Cllr McGuire claimed almost €13,000 in 2011 in expenses, including almost €6,000 in mayoral travel expenses. In general, a councillor can claim up to €4,700 to attend council meetings (AKA, ‘show up to work’ money) and conferences during a year and they also receive a €600 telephone allowance. All of this money is tax free.

Each councillor is, of course, underpaid and under expensed compared to their colleagues who make it up into the rarified air of Leinster House. The idea that someone can get paid an expense without providing a receipt is not only ridiculous, it’s stringently frowned upon by the Revenue Commissioners for mere mortals.

It’s also downright illegal to receive tax free expenses for travelling to and from one’s place of work, be that an office or a council building or indeed, Leinster House.

Fact is, if the expenses policies enjoyed by politicians were replicated in any private sector organisation there would be Revenue investigations, back taxes and penalty fines levied for being bold.

Consider the average industrial wage

The idea that councillors should be compensated so as to not be out of pocket whilst representing their constituents is a fair one. The idea that a part-time job can deliver an average payment that’s near enough the average industrial wage, and probably north of what you’d receive net of tax when it’s considered that a good chunk is tax free money, is wrong. The notion that a single penny should ever be handed over without there being a receipt provided, kept and published as a matter of public record is creating a gravy train that is open to abuse by our ever-honest political class.

Noel Rock got such a severe reaction from politicians in his own party, being bombarded he tells us with calls and texts from colleagues expressing a negative sentiment for even bringing the topic up, says that he is probably on to a winner.

The only way to affect real change in politics is at the ballot box. It doesn’t matter what party they’re in, when the candidates from the far right to the far left come knocking on your door – as they are sure to do between now and May – you need to if they will voluntarily take to publishing receipts for their expenses. If they will, tell them you’ll vote for them. If not, good luck and goodbye.

We’re paying for local government in a far more direct fashion than we had to previously. You can see how much you’re paying in property tax. Unless you’re very wealthy, it’s a fraction of what a councillor can claim in showing up to work money that you cannot; or in attending conferences without receipts, something you’d be crucified for.

If Noel Rock is elected to Dublin City Council in May, he says that he will bring forward a motion to end the practice of flat, unvouched expenses. If I was elected in my own ward of Castleknock to that same council, he’ll have at least one other vote. Wherever you live, you can do your bit to try and effect the same change – regardless of which party you want to vote for – by asking that your candidates pledge to do the same.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: FG candidate defends no expenses pledge after party colleague calls him a ‘tosser’

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