A binding benefit

A motion to continue giving city councilliors a tax break on a third of their pay is on the consent agenda for tonight's regular meeting, meaning it's likely to pass without discussion.

The Municipal Act lets councillors get a third of their base pay tax-free by declaring it as compensation for "expenses incident to the discharge" of council duties. It's been a longstanding city policy to have the tax break, since that same remuneration policy bars councillors from claiming a host of incidental expenses, not least of which is in-town travel.

It sounds like a sweet deal for anyone to get a third of one's salary tax-free, but, to be honest, I'm of two minds about this one. Given the way gas prices go up and down, and all the expenses a councillor could theoretically claim as incidental if he or she were allowed, I'm not convinced taxpayers aren't getting a better deal this way.

What's interesting, though, is the way tonight's vote works. The Municipal Act requires councils to review the tax break at least once during their four-year term. That review isn't for the current council, however, but the next one. City council's last review of the matter, on May 27, 2008, reconfirmed the tax break for the current council, and the vote expected to pass tonight will do the same for the bunch we elect in 2014.

The Municipal Act speaks to the matter of a municipal council binding its successors, although tonight's vote clearly does not run against it. Even beyond the strictest letter of the law, it's commonplace for councillors to avoid doing things (other than necessities like long-term projects or contracts) that bind their successors.

In this case, what's binding is a benefit. It's hard to imagine the next council complaining very loudly about their predecessors forcing a tax break down their throats (especially since the smart money is on most of the current bunch getting back in).

Still, what if the vote goes the other way and these councillors pull a benefit from their successors?

One can understand how, by preserving a benefit for future councillors, the current lot can be at a remove from criticism. In order to keep getting the benefit, they have to be re-elected first.

But, as with pay raises, it would make a lot more sense for the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to apply directly and immediately to the people casting their votes.

It's about accountability. And in this case, the benefit seems defensible anyway.