City budget hawk John Marshall Lee Monday night questioned the use of City Council stipends in his address to the legislative body. What’s appropriate use? Should stipend funds designed to reimburse councilors for expenses incurred in performance of duties be allowed for charitable giving? And how about loading stipend info for public review on the city’s website? His commentary follows:
For many of us the upcoming two weeks include celebrations and holidays that feature opportunities for gifting. That is the subject that I would ask you about this evening. Last Monday evening, a dozen members of this Council were present to hear the City administration tackle a subject they called Budget 101. Two new members asked questions. Other new and old members listened to answers. I hope that each of you keep asking questions and repeating them if you do not get full answers, ones that make sense to you. It is the best way to represent your fellow taxpayers. I have tried to be a “necessary watchdog” where oversight or monitoring is not obvious. Some call me “aggressive” for this questioning. I will admit to being “confrontational.” Let me give you an example this evening.
This is the season for personal giving to family and loved ones, as well as attention to those in particular need, and giving for the benefit of favorite charities where a tax deduction can be earned for this current tax year if a gift is completed before 12-31-13.
Each City Council member has use of 1/20th of the $180,000 budgeted each year for stipends. This is money intended to assist you in the performance of your duties. A new system was adopted over the past year that uses a debit card. I presented an FOI request on paperwork dealing with the stipend change of administration that the City Attorney office tells me is not fully found at this time, nearly six months after my original request.
That is not the problem I raise tonight, although I and many others think that you should reveal your use of taxpayer funds by making a publicly available listing in a monthly record of reimbursements. That is not done today and is neither open, accountable nor transparent behavior. New members need to question why they go along with a secret system that bothers taxpayers while spending tax funds.
The specific issue I raise for your action is based on a story that I have heard recently. The debit card can pay for many types of expense supporting your duties. In the past however, more than one Council person provided funds to individuals and/or organizations of a “charitable and worthy nature” covered by stipend. The debit card system may not lend itself to that type of City payment.
I looked at your legislative budget. It is not large, and in the June DRAFT report for 2013, line item #56180 showed $5,722 total for Other Expenses, an account you budgeted at $93,500 annually but rarely is used for a fraction of that. The July, 2013 monthly report issued October 11, 2013 presumably after close of year adjustments showed the actual unaudited 2013 sum for that same account as $31,622. That is a significant difference. Where was almost $26,000 of Legislative funds transferred? Was it to cover charitable contributions by Council? Where was the City Council vote on this matter? Who signs off on such items? Institutions are judged on how they handle small matters as well as large issues. It is not only about $400,000 gravel driveways or eliminating $4 Million of “ghost positions” last year but still spending the money. Where is it accounted for? More than two dozen taxpayers whom I have spoken with in the past week believe that funds to charity should be personal only, not for the City Council to give away. They also believe that your reimbursement amounts should be public and regular. What say you?
This would require some discussion and action by your group. Stop the rumors about stipends. Go public. Several Council members, still sitting here, in recent years have received more than $9,000 in annual reimbursement. That is prohibited. Perhaps these were repaid in a subsequent year? How would the public know? What about the Council person who stepped down with $2,000 overage? Was this City money recovered?
This is a season of giving and celebration. Is it appropriate for you to become public about the details of your stipends? Will you do it this year? Will you decide to follow the Charter and Ordinance language in multiple areas for the benefit of taxpayers? Time will tell.