Tuesday, May 6, 2003

City Council members cut budgets, but not their own

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Councilman James R. Tarbell spent $548 to cater Arts and Culture Committee meetings and $1,600 to buy up 34 copies of a book about the architecture of the Cincinnati Public Schools.

David Pepper spent $4,071 to replace his city-issued office furniture with something more stylish. Minette Cooper spent $245 on artwork for her office. Chris Monzel bought $411 worth of coffee. John Cranley bought a $218 Palm Pilot he says he can't live without.

At a time City Council members were cutting $35 million from the budget - and asking city employees to do without cell phones, overtime, city cars and travel - their own office budgets remained untouched.

Council members often circumvent city purchasing procedures, give employees year-end bonuses that would be forbidden in civil service jobs, and dodge the city's residency requirement by paying office staff as independent contractors, an Enquirer review of council office budgets found.

And despite calls for accountability in how city departments spend their money, City Council members say no additional systems are needed to monitor their spending. Ultimately, it's up to voters to decide whether they're being responsible with their spending, they said.

"I don't get into the business of looking over the shoulder of other elected officials," said Cranley, chairman of the Finance Committee.

To be sure, council members' budgets are a small fraction of the city budget. Salaries and expenses for the mayor's office, clerk of council and council members are budgeted at a little more than $3 million this year. That's less than 1 percent of the $485.3 million city operating budget.

Council members are paid an annual salary of $57,893 - for what is supposed to be a part-time job. In addition, each council member gets a $100,440 annual allotment to run his or her office, which includes paying for a staff (usually two full-time legislative aides), office supplies, telephones and travel.

Spending highlights for 2002
Those expenses have grown at three times the rate of inflation since 1973, when council members got $7,000 to hire a part-time staffer and pay other bills.

Council's biggest budget hawks are also some of its biggest spenders. Cranley, a Democrat, spent the most. Republicans Pat DeWine and Monzel ranked fourth and fifth.

"I think the issue isn't so much how much council members spend, but how they spend their money," DeWine said. "I think this office does more than any other council office, quite frankly, and the people in this office work very hard."

Questions about travel

DeWine and Monzel are particularly critical of travel by council members. At $15,810 last year, travel expenses for seven council members ranked behind personnel and phone bills as City Council's biggest expense category.

"At a time when we have a serious budget issue, when we're cutting back on travel for other city employees, I just can't justify it," DeWine said.

Indeed, when Mayor Charlie Luken and City Manager Valerie Lemmie announced in December that 47 employees would have to be laid off, four council members were in Salt Lake City for the National League of Cities conference. The four-day conference included a session on getting along at City Council meetings titled, "Councilmen are from Mars, Councilwomen are from Venus."

"Why are they going out there?" Monzel asked. "To better the city? Or to better themselves?"

The most-frequent flier was Cooper, a lame-duck councilwoman who took five trips totaling $5,628.

They included two visits to Portland, Ore., (one for the National Forum for Black Public Administrators and another to tour the city's light rail system) and two National League of Cities meetings in Salt Lake City and Washington.

She also spent $514 on a three-day trip to Birmingham, Ala., to attend a dinner honoring the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. When city auditors questioned the public purpose of the expense, Cooper said the trip was necessary to present a City Council proclamation honoring Shuttlesworth. The bill was paid.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece spent $3,113 on travel - including trips to the annual conventions of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition and the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. Both organizations are quasi-political, and Reece's father, Steve Reece, is active in both.

At the National Action Network meeting in New York, Reece sat on a panel discussion titled, "Mules, Pachyderms & the Ballot: Reassessing Party Politics & Candidates of Color."

Reece said she also used the trips to fight off the economic boycott of Cincinnati by some civil rights groups. Jackson and Sharpton have mostly been silent on the boycott.

"Everyone in this city knows that Alicia Reece has traveled all over the country fighting for our city," she said. "The boycott would have been a hell of a lot worse had I not made those trips."

Council members are also required by city ordinances to get advance permission for travel from the Finance Committee, but that ordinance is rarely followed. Cranley said he was unaware of it.

Separate rules

Indeed, council members often fail to follow the spending rules they set for other city departments.

Chief among them: a payroll function called the "gross pay adjustment."

Originally intended to correct mistakes on city employees' paychecks, council members have used it to give end-of-the-year Christmas bonuses to employees in their offices.

Most generous last year was Pepper, who gave $3,750 in year-end bonuses.

Just before he stepped down from City Council last month, Councilman Paul Booth gave a $4,000 bonus to his chief of staff, Ron Mosby.

It's not a new practice. After it was reported in 1992 that council members had paid their aides $121,419 in bonuses over five years, then-Mayor Dwight Tillery appointed a committee to study the way council members use their office budgets.

City Council voted 8-1 to eliminate the practice of giving bonuses, but never followed through. The city administration prohibits giving bonuses to city employees.

As city employees, council aides have to abide by the rules of city employment, including the Hamilton County residency rule. But by designating former television news reporter Barbara Brady a contractor, Councilman Paul Booth could pay her $13.50 an hour even though she lives in Fort Mitchell.

Booth said the move helped save the city money on benefits.

Other city departments are expected to go through the Purchasing Division - the "city store" - for office supplies and other routine purchases. By seeking the lowest bid and buying in bulk, taxpayers save money.

But six council members have revolving credit accounts at Staples, and others order through office supply catalogs. All told, council members spent $10,822 on office supplies without adhering to rules about competitive bidding or minority participation.

'I want it now'

Though city ordinances require all city purchasing to be approved by the city's purchasing director, those laws are rarely enforced.

"Elected officials tend to say, 'I want it and I want it now,'" said Francis X. Wagner, director of the city's Accounts and Audits Division.

Tarbell, chairman of the Arts and Culture Committee, has a reputation for running the most interesting meetings at City Hall. And his expense account proves it.

Tarbell spent $2,000 to sponsor a community theater production of The Civil War in March. He paid $50 for a pianist to play background music before a committee meeting.

He bought 34 copies of a coffee table book titled An Expression of the Community: Cincinnati Public Schools' Legacy of Art and Architecture by Robert A. Flischel. (Two of them were $108 leather-bound editions.)

What did he do with them all?

"I still have some of them. I'm passing them out when I feel it's appropriate to brag about one of our strongest features," Tarbell said. "It's a rare tool. This, to me, is an extraordinary piece of work."

So extraordinary that he created a $500 prize, called it the "Chairman's Award," and gave it to the publisher - all without a committee vote.

"I couldn't wait to do it," he said. "It was time we used the influence of the committee to applaud people who were contributing."

While Tarbell supports local publishers, Reece has been doing some publishing of her own.

In January, Reece spent $3,052 to print and mail her annual "Report to the People" - an eight-page, black-and-while pamphlet in which she took credit for $585 million of city spending, touted her support for boxing and promoted her weekly radio program on WDBZ (1230 AM).

Of the 10,000 copies printed, 4,898 have been mailed.

"I haven't heard one complaint," she said. "People like it."

Reece said she's making good on a 1999 campaign promise, in which she said she would report back to her constituents each year on what she had accomplished, so voters could hold her accountable.

There's little accountability for how council members spend their $100,440 office budgets.

In an age-old system, City Council members pay bills by distributing green voucher sheets to members of the Finance Committee. Once they get five signatures, the bills get paid.

But even as council members have raised eyebrows at some expenses, they have rarely - if ever - refused to sign off on the spending of a colleague.

During last year's budget talks, Booth proposed a motion to cut council's office budgets by 5 percent across the board. It never got a vote. In a budget compromise, City Council agreed to freeze council spending at 2002 levels.

Some council members argued that if City Council is going to root out wasteful spending elsewhere, it needs the staff to dig deep into city departments.

At least one councilwoman argued at the time that council budgets ought to be increased.

"A lot of people, when they have a problem, they call City Council first. They don't call the administration," Reece said. "I'd like to pay my people more, because they do a lot of work."

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

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