REVEALED: How much your councillors spent
THE costs racked up by Whitsunday Regional councillors have been unveiled through an audit, which has prompted changes to be recommended for the way telephone bills, accommodation bookings and meal expenses are handled.
An internal audit of Whitsunday Regional Council was conducted by public accounting firm Crowe in March 2019 to ensure councillors' reimbursements and expenses were in line with policy.
The audit revealed that from July 1 2018 to March 29 2019, during the term of the previous council, councillors claimed $45,411 in reimbursements.
The reimbursements varied from more than $20,000 to $257 between the six councillors and mayor.
When broken down into categories, it was identified that travel and accommodation was the largest councillor expense, coming in at $23,987.56.
This was followed by registration costs, which sat at nearly $10,000.
Telephone landline and mobile costs totalled just over $8000 with meal expenses coming in at about $3000 and incidental expenses totalling $245.84.
The audit triggered a series of recommendations "to ensure that the reimbursement of councillors expenses is transparent and to ensure fair and consistent treatment of councillors in relation to reimbursement of expenses".
These recommendations included ensuring better records of hospitality expenses were kept by the council after it was found that while councillor's have a hospitality allowance in line with policy, it was "not kept track of over the course of the year".
Council policy allows the mayor to claim up to $4000 a year for "hospitality expenses deemed necessary in the conduct of council business".
Under the same policy, councillors have an allowance of $500 per year.
It was recommended that a record be kept to ensure councillors were not exceeding this annual limit.
"Improvement opportunities" were also listed in the audit for areas including CEO discretion, meal allowances and travel preferences.
The audit documents stated that "through discussions with council support staff, it was identified that in some instances, accommodation for conferences was booked in line with councillor preference for hotels and not in accordance with the Reimbursement of Expenses and Provision of Facilities for Councillors Policy."
According to policy, accommodation bookings should be "the most economic, convenient to the event and where possible a minimum of four stars should be booked".
The audit investigation found that "in some instances the hotel booked did not present the best value for money in the area being booked".
Consequently, the audit recommended council support staff be solely responsible for accommodation bookings to ensure that the hotel booked is compliant with policy.
The audit also recommended practices be put in place to ensure uniform purchases were made in line with policy after it was identified that "when reimbursement is sought for shoes purchased under the Uniform and Clothing Policy, no check is performed to ensure that the shoes purchased are in line with the policy and also if the shoes purchased are being worn to work".
Further clarity over phone bills was also recommended after the audit identified councillors seeking reimbursement "were required to provide only one monthly account invoice and each subsequent reimbursement has been based off of the original invoice provided".
The audit report stated this meant it was unable "identify if telecommunication contracts are still valid and have not ceased since the original bill was provided".
A summary rather than a detailed breakdown of monthly bills was also identified as barrier in verifying "if excess usage charges have been applied".
The audit's positive feedback praised the council's organisation "and concluded that there were no discrepancies identified between the reimbursements recorded and supporting documentation and this appeared to largely be due to the cohesiveness between the councillor support officer and the operational accounting team".
As a result of the audit, a new policy regarding expenses will be put to councillors at tomorrow's council meeting.
The new policy would keep the hospitality expenses capped at $4000 for the mayor and $500 for councillors per year.
"Reasonable alcohol costs" are included as part of this expense.
Council will also pay for or reimburse councillors for travel costs when on approved council business where they will be entitled to stay in three- or four-star accommodation when it is necessary to attend to council business.
Under the new policy, flights must be booked and paid for by the council and economy airfares are to be used where possible.
However, upgrades may be approved by the chief executive officer in certain circumstances with the potential to upgrade to business class if the flight is longer than four hours.
Councillors may also claim reimbursement of home phone, mobile and home internet costs of up to $190 a month with copies of invoices provided before the reimbursement payment.
The mayor also has access to a council vehicle with full private use due to the role's "extensive 'after hours' work" while councillors may elect to either use their personal vehicle for council business within region and claim an allowance for the kilometres travelled or use a council provided vehicle.
The new policy will be voted on at the council meeting in Bowen tomorrow.