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Travel travails: Anniston council revisits familiar fiscal debate

A'ton City Council Nov '16

When Anniston City Council members voted last month to censure Councilman Ben Little for exceeding his travel budget, they were revisiting a conflict which over the years has had no clear resolution — at least in part because no penalty exists for its violation.

The council’s travel policy, adopted in May 2018 by all five members of the current council, says nothing about the council or its individual members overspending in that category.

The topic has been a frequent point of contention for the current and past incarnations of the council, with the most recent shouting match taking place during the body’s meeting Dec. 18, when Councilwoman Millie Harris added a resolution to the agenda admonishing Little for going $1,113 over his $5,000 budget through the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30 last year. The total budget was $25,000, divided among the council’s five members, including Anniston Mayor Jack Draper; Little was the only member to overspend.

But that’s just the most recent battle over the budget. The issue spans more than a decade of the Anniston governing body’s history. City Manager Jay Johnson said there’s no overspending policy because it’s difficult to take disciplinary action against elected officials. The censure on Dec. 18, he said, was the end of the issue, at least for now.

“There’s been no further discussion,” he said.

Johnson said that in his understanding, past practice in dealing with overdrawn budgets has been “all over the place.”

“I know of one instance where one member went over and paid back the overage amount, I’m aware of another instance where a member went over and everybody just said, ‘OK,’ and then this year with Mr. Little, there was an issue made of it,” he said.

Councilman Jay Jenkins said the council is obligated to stay within budget — he was once over his travel budget by about $700, an amount he reimbursed to the city from his personal accounts, he said  — and it needs guidelines about handling the problem.

“I think this highlights the need for some kind of formal policy on the issue,” he said.

Familiar argument

Anniston’s travel budget has serpentined between low and high amounts over the last decade, and some council members have had difficulty adhering to it.

In March 2010, then-Mayor Gene Robinson asked council members to voluntarily reimburse the city for spending beyond their budget. (Little was one of those council members, and he broke his budget cap for four consecutive years at that time.) The budget at that time was a combined $20,000 because Robinson volunteered to forgo an expense account. Before, it had been $6,000 per member.

In August 2011, money was pulled from the city’s corrections funding to cover costs of other departments, and the council once again picked at the travel budget issue. Little, who was overspent at that time, said that as long as the total amount didn’t break $20,000, it would be fine to let the unspent funds of one council member cover the overspending of another. In October that year, the council voted to double its travel funding to $10,000 per member. (Robinson still refused travel money for himself.)

In August 2017, Jenkins suggested cutting travel expenses completely, according to meeting coverage at the time. (Jenkins said Friday that he believed the statement was made to illustrate a point, rather than cut funding.) The council agreed to drop from $7,000 back down to $5,000 during that meeting. Interim City Manager Cory Salley said at that time that the council looks at its budget as a whole, in which one member can go over budget and another go under, and balance each other out. Little’s line of reasoning is the same, he explained Friday.

“The travel budget for the council is not overrun,” he said.

Little said during the Dec. 18 meeting that he wasn’t informed that he had gone over his budget until he was censured that night. However, Johnson provided an email he sent to Little Nov. 19 that warned him of his overdrawn budget; in the email, Johnson said “all expenses appear to be eligible costs,” including three conferences: National League of Cities conferences in Charlotte and Washington, D.C., and a league gathering in Florida for black elected officials.

When asked, Little said the email didn’t amount to an official notice of his budget’s condition. He said that should have come from the city’s financial director. When pressed, Little did say “I got it and responded to (Johnson) and explained what took place.”

He also said during the Dec. 18 meeting that he made charges in late 2017 that put him over budget this year, that should have been on the prior year’s summary. However, he was only $785 from his total that year; if the additional $1,113 came from the prior year, he would have still broken his budget by $328. Little’s spending was $6,215 that year, about the same as his spending in the fiscal 2018, but with a higher budget of $7,000 per council member.

Policy souvenirs

Every council member agreed that the travel fund is an important tool for managing the city. Attempts to reach Draper were unsuccessful Friday.

Traveling to conventions becomes beneficial when it helps develop policy back home.

Jenkins said he brought back a plan to create the Rocky Hollow Neighborhood Association from an NLC convention, where members of a similar association from Kansas City gave a presentation on pushing back crime. He said he made contact with representatives of Best Western six years ago at an International Council of Shopping Centers conference that may turn into a downtown hotel, though the project has faced recent difficulties.

“While some of the players have changed, the conversation has continued,” Jenkins said.

Councilman David Reddick said travel to conferences turns into local value for Anniston residents, with council members learning from other municipalities how to handle problems that have already been solved elsewhere. He said that in turn, he’s able to share Anniston’s practices and affect change on a large scale.

“We go to these things and set policy that affects the whole country,” he said.

Harris said she believes the $5,000 budget is a reasonable amount that allows for any council member to go to two conferences per year. Both Reddick and Little attended three; the additional conference is the one for black elected officials, which they both said is an extra expense that white peers on the council wouldn’t incur.

Harris didn’t spend any of her travel funds through 2018 according to the city’s travel expense forms, and when asked if that meant the city was missing any value from her not attending conferences, she said the money goes back to the general fund.

“And we really, truly need to put money into our reserves,” she said.

Harris agreed that the conferences are valuable “if we’ve got a problem that has been resolved somewhere else, so as not to reinvent the wheel,” but she said that much of the same knowledge can be researched on the internet for free.

“Some of it is a waste,” she said.

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.