City fiscal scrutineer John Marshall Lee, addressing the City Council Monday night in its final meeting of 2015, urged the supposed watchdogs of taxpayer dollars to poise radar in three tangible areas that cost money. From Lee:
It’s that time of year when experience as a child may come to you in the form of wonder, joy, or peace or the more practical review of the past year with a hanging question as to whether you have been good for goodness’ sake. Otherwise, “you’d better watch out, better not pout,” etc. Well as one administration departs City Hall, information has surfaced calling into question whether financial revelations are real examples of how to take advantage of neighbors in cynical fashion. As such we need to ask: “How do excesses happen?” Why were checks and balance structure not in place to prevent what will be seen as wrongful expenditures? What can the Council do, to investigate and set up process to prevent this in the future?
I suggest grouping the concepts tonight as the “three C’s”: Cars, credit cards, and cell phones. You need to do some research to get all the facts out, as some of my comments merely trust some incredible rumors, but Bridgeport is a place where rumors often carry much truth. Sorting it out with detail is your duty, I suggest.
Each of you has read about the purchase of two autos during the last week of November for $72,000 from the Public Facility budget. I have looked in the detailed July 2015 monthly financial operating report but find no line item pertaining to vehicle acquisition. So it is likely that it may be part of Public Facilities Capital budget, but how would the Council know? Aren’t you the folks who will be held responsible by taxpayers? Do any of you have a current balance sheet for the various capital projects undertaken by the City just in this fiscal year? If not, is it fair for a taxpayer to ask you? Why not?
Ask the new administration in its effort to become more OPEN, ACCOUNTABLE and TRANSPARENT whether you can get up to speed. Won’t they be asking you per tonight’s agenda to authorize bonds to fund Capital Projects? Isn’t it fair for you to keep track of where the money is spent when you authorize it? (And not for nothing at this moment, who is authorized to drive City cars between home and work? And where is such a list posted? Why not have such info public on the City site and let taxpayers become a form of Neighborhood Watch?)
So much for cars, but what about cards? Credit cards that is. Those of you who participate in the Stipend system know about debit cards. Each quarter the account can be replenished with additional dollars from your stipend balance to be used to support City Council related duties and expenses up to $9000 annually. You have a limit of $2,250 per quarter. But how many city employees have City credit cards at this time, or did during November 2015? What records did they keep of usage on City business? Were there any practical limits on what they could spend? Were records sent to another City office for oversight? How were the categories of expense coded into City departmental line items? Don’t you need to see whether this method of handling expenses needs review, oversight, and listing so that the public can begin to trust in practical monitoring?
Finally, let’s address the subject of cell phones. How many City cell phones are out there? What Departmental Line Item are they expensed under? What monitoring is done to be sure that taxpayers only pay for City business? I looked at the Office of the Mayor department expense budget and do not see a line item that deals with communications equipment and expenses unless it is 55155 Office Equipment Rental/Leasing that shows $5534 as the annual budget for all such in the current fiscal year. Is it true that more than one dozen people have run up and/or submitted nearly $120,000 of cell phone expense to the City? How can that be possible? Before such would be paid out, what proof is required of business purpose of calls? How soon must bills be submitted? Can we have a list of those with City cell phones? And by what process are hard line phone systems and cell phones integrated today?
Cars, credit cards, and cell phones are things we all use and pay for personally. They are tools for City employees, but when rumors abound, when facts are not provided routinely and the internet records are not publicly available; taxpayers lose trust in civil servants. How can you as our representatives, set up systems with executive cooperation to reduce budgets? Time will tell.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.