“I am asking the council to voluntarily reimburse the city,” Robinson said at the City Council meeting last week. “I want you all to set up reimbursement to (the) financial (department) and to the people. It’s not our money. It’s their money.”
The suggestion was not taken well by the other councilmen.
Councilmen Ben Little and John Spain suggested the mayor pay the council’s inquiry expenses for the hearings he was subpoenaed to but did not attend. The council subpoenaed the mayor to the inquiry four times, but each time the mayor filed motions to quash the subpoenas and the motions were granted. The council did hear from other witnesses at those hearings.
“Traveling is a, is something that the council has to do,” Little added. “From time to time we may periodically go over.”
In fact, Little and Councilman Herbert Palmore have regularly overspent their travel budgets. Little has spent more than the budgeted travel expenses for at least the last four fiscal years, and Palmore has spent more than the budgeted travel expenses for the last three fiscal years.
Robinson also suggested the council could approve all the councilmen’s travel expenses individually at open council meetings, the same way it does staff reimbursements, so that everyone would know how much each councilman was spending.
Councilman David Dawson, who has never spent more on travel than was budgeted, said after the meeting he would support that suggestion. He said he keeps track of the money he spends on travel and makes sure he doesn’t go over budget.
“I think the city gives us ample money to travel,” Dawson said. “I get $300 a month to spend – let me assure you that does not cover your travel expenses and some other things that you might do, but we knew that going in. We agreed to do that, and I think we need to stay on budget and if possible under budget.”
After the meeting, the mayor said the problem has been ongoing for years as some of the councilmen regularly blow past their allotted travel funds. The recession has made the overages seem increasingly frivolous, Robinson said, adding that he intends to work with Finance Director Danny McCullars to create a policy to deal with the issue.
“I just think that when we vote a travel budget, we stick with a travel budget,” Robinson said.
The mayor, at Robinson’s own request, doesn’t have a travel budget.
Little, however, believes the council members are frugal with the city’s resources even if they do overspend the travel budget.
“No one’s going to any elaborate trips doing anything unnecessary,” Little said. “Unless we’re in a definite financial crisis, I don’t think you can cut back on the basic and fundamental things that we usually do.”
Little goes to three conferences by the National League of Cities each year. One, which he and some of the other councilmen are attending this week, is in Denver, and one in the spring is in Washington, D.C.
This fiscal year, as the city tried to balance its lean budget, the councilmen cut the travel budgets to all city departments by about 7 percent, McCullars said.
“Basically, travel was limited to in-state for certification requirements, with limited economic development travels out of state,” McCullars said by e-mail.
Little said the cuts were appropriate because travel isn’t essential for staff.
“There’s a difference in staff and the elected official,” Little said. “Those three conferences that we go to offer networking and (the opportunity) to do things. That’s not necessarily the responsibility of the staff.”
The councilmen’s travel budgets were also cut nearly 20 percent, from $6,000 to $5,000. Little did not agree with that because he sees council members’ travel as an investment. The councilmen make contacts and gather information that can help them better govern the city, he said.
“We’re networking,” Little said. “It’s not always measurable, just like social organizations and the good they do is not always measurable. But you just feel their effect.”
He said he doesn’t intend to cut his travel this year.
The $5,000 ceiling on the travel budget isn’t firm; the councilmen can, and some do, spend more than that.
In fiscal 2009, the year Robinson, Spain and Dawson took office, the council members were budgeted $5,000 each for travel. All the councilmen except Dawson spent more than $5,000. In Ward 1, Spain replaced Stan Bennett one month into the fiscal year and travel expenses were $6,664. In Ward 2, Councilman Herbert Palmore spent $7,463. In Ward 3, Little spent $8,629. Ward 4, where David Dawson replaced Jeff Fink, accumulated $3,742 in travel expenses.
In fiscal 2010, the first full year for Spain, Dawson and Robinson, the travel budgets were increased to $6,000 and only Little and Palmore overspent the travel budget. In Ward 2, Palmore accumulated $9,021 in travel expenses and in Ward 3, Little accumulated $7,193. Spain and Dawson were both under budget. Spain accumulated $5,817 and Dawson accumulated $4,356.
Spain said he doesn’t keep track of his expenses, but does try to be frugal. However, he believes the city should be flexible about spending on travel. While he does think the councilmen should only take necessary trips, he doesn’t want the city to lose out if an opportunity pops up that might put a councilmember or even staff over budget.
“If something new came up that we had to train our folks to do and it was going to mean an overrun, well we would be foolish to say, ‘No, you can’t do that because it wasn’t budgeted,’” Spain said. “That’s the kind of flexibility we need.”
Spain would not support either council approval of councilmen’s travel reimbursements or the councilmen reimbursing the city for any overspending on travel.
Little said the small amount the city pays for council travel doesn’t hurt the city.
“Cutting $5,000 out of a $31 million budget, that is a straw blowing in the wind,” he said.
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.