Metro Vancouver is defending controversial expenses on staff massages, a new high-rise cafeteria with mountain and ocean views, and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on global travel for politicians.
The new expenses come as Metro Vancouver reels from an angry public backlash to a 15-per-cent pay raise and retroactive severance package that Metro politicians voted for themselves last month. That decision is now under review.
Now comes word Metro Vancouver has spent $1.5 million on a 29th-floor cafeteria with stunning skyline views and opened a staff massage clinic on the same floor.
The cafeteria and massage clinic are located in Metrotower III, a high-rise office building in Burnaby’s Metrotown Centre that Metro Vancouver bought three years ago for $205 million.
The clinic offers 40-minute massage treatments for Metro Vancouver staff who work in the building, the municipal board’s headquarters.
“The program is appreciated by employees,” said Metro Vancouver spokesperson Don Bradley. “Massage therapy is demonstrated to reduce stress and promote health, while increasing productivity and reducing absenteeism.”
Staff must pay $10 per massage — a great deal when you consider a 40-minute therapeutic massage can cost $80 or more at a private clinic.
The massages are provided by students from Vancouver Career College.
“Students are able to meet their practicum requirements,” Bradley explained.
But critics were not impressed.
“Taxpayers are getting ripped off,” fumed West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith. “This is just outrageous.”
“Imagine being a cashier standing on her feet all day, or a bus driver with a bad back — try telling them Metro Vancouver bureaucrats are getting massages at work,” said Kris Sims of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “That’s gross.”
Sims also questioned the need for a sky-high dining experience when the office tower is so close to Metrotown Mall, which has the largest food court in Western Canada.
“Are you seriously telling me they can’t just go down a few floors on the elevator to get their lunch?” she asked.
But Bradley, the Metro spokesperson, said the cafeteria is a time-saver for busy staff.
“There is tremendous benefit in offering a healthier meal service on site without employees needing to navigate the mall 10 to 15 minutes each way to frequent the food court,” Bradley said.
The cafeteria serves up great food at bargain prices. A hamburger with fries or salad is just $6. A grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with fries or salad is $5.75.
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Last week’s special was apple-cider marinated, slow-roasted pork loin with roasted baby red potatoes, fresh vegetables and golden apple sauce for $9. A classic ratatouille medley of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomato basil sauce was $7.95.
The mountain and ocean views are spectacular, but the cafeteria is off-limits to the public.
A sign in the tower lobby warns visitors the cafeteria is for the “exclusive use” of tower staff.
“Food services open to the general public are available in the mall,” the sign says.
The cafeteria food is provided by a contracted supplier, which is given use of the cafeteria space rent-free.
Smith, the West Vancouver mayor, thinks it’s all a waste of money.
“They moved out of a perfectly serviceable building into the Taj Mahal tower at Metrotown,” fumes Smith, a member of the Metro Vancouver board of directors, which is made up of municipal mayors and councillors from around the region.
“Moving into this building with these sorts of services is symptomatic of the mindset,” Smith said. “There’s no oversight or accountability.”
Smith is also furious at international travel expenses racked up by Metro Chair Greg Moore and other Metro politicians.
Since 2013, Moore (the mayor of Port Coquitlam) has travelled to conferences in Paris (twice), Australia (twice), London, Korea, San Francisco, Liverpool, Ecuador, Colombia, Morocco, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Charlottetown, Calgary, Ottawa, Niagara Falls and Seattle. His expense claims over that period topped more than $80,000.
Vancouver city councillor Raymond Louie, the vice-chair of the Metro board, has travelled to Korea (twice), Colombia (twice), China, Ecuador, Morocco, Regina and Calgary. Total expenses were $40,232.
Other destinations visited by Metro politicians include Rotterdam, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Diego and Bonn, Germany. Total expenses were $350,844.
“They always seem to be looking for international conferences to attend,” grumbled Smith, whose name is conspicuously absent from Metro’s expense reports.
“I haven’t submitted a single receipt,” he said. “I refuse to rip off the taxpayer.”
Metro politicians are set to “reconsider” their 15-per-cent pay raise and retroactive severance at the next board meeting on April 27.