Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pricey perks on the chopping block

City officials consider daily per diem for elected officials as part of new travel policy

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As Gaithersburg debates a new travel policy, a Gazette review of submitted travel expenses over the last five years has found that city taxpayers have paid a number of costs that could be deemed extravagant, including one $95 meal for which for Assistant City Manager Fred Felton left a $70 tip in 2005.

Felton, who was attending the annual Maryland Municipal League conference at the time, said last week that he does not remember why he left a 73 percent tip at The Hobbit Restaurant in Ocean City, Md., at 8:43 p.m. on June 27, 2005.

Current city policy for employees states that reimbursable tips must be in the ‘‘reasonable customary” range of 15 to 20 percent of the food bill. City Manager David B. Humpton, who approved Felton’s Hobbit receipt for reimbursement, said he does not recall approving the item and could not explain why taxpayers funded such a large tip.

Since learning about the expense, Humpton said he’s spoken with Felton about the situation and sees clearly that it was an error.

‘‘I’m going to weigh everything and make a determination” on how to proceed, Humpton said.

Hundreds of city dollars have also been paid to reimburse costs for alcoholic beverages over the past five years, according to the expense records reviewed.

While city policy stipulates that expenses for alcohol cannot be reimbursed, the rule was written expressly for city employees and does not include elected officials, many of whom appear to have routinely had taxpayers pay for their alcoholic drinks.

On Dec. 11, 2003, while at the National League of Cities conference in Nashville, Tenn., taxpayers paid $1,134.07 — $263.25, nearly a quarter of the bill, for alcohol — for a group of 14 to have dinner at the Sunset Grill.

In attendance were six elected officials, four of their spouses, two city staff members and two unidentified representatives of the City of Rockville, according to the submitted receipt.

City taxpayers have also routinely paid for daily meal expenses that in many cases are double the rate paid by other jurisdictions. Montgomery County government pays a daily rate, or per diem, of $35 for meals for its business travelers. The federal government’s daily per diem is $39 to $64, depending on the area, and the City of Rockville follows the federal guidelines.

Since 2002, records show that Gaithersburg taxpayers have paid for a number of meals for elected officials and their spouses attending conferences at a cost closer to $80 each.

It was the issue of spouse travel — which has cost the city $7,645.12 since May 2005 for trips to National League of Cities, Maryland Municipal League and the International Chiefs of Police Association conferences in places such as Reno, Nev., Indianapolis and Miami — that prompted Gaithersburg officials to consider the need for an updated travel policy following media reports on the expense.

The update proposed, discussed during a public hearing Monday night, would limit the number of conferences that spouses would be allowed to travel to at city expense and would more clearly address the rules about reimbursement for alcoholic beverages.

Some derided the draft policy as a waste of time and resources, noting that the city gains much from having elected officials and their spouses attend various conferences and that the annual travel budget for the officials of about $35,000 has never been exceeded.

Others, though, indicated Gaithersburg would benefit from following a structure similar to most area cities and businesses. Few major municipalities in Maryland compensate spousal travel.

Council member and mayor are part-time jobs in Gaithersburg. The mayor is paid $12,000 a year, while council members elected before 2005 are paid $6,000 a year and those elected in 2005 and after are paid $10,000 a year.

The draft travel policy, which would pertain to all of Gaithersburg’s elected officials, was introduced in response to a March 19 request by Councilwoman Geri Edens.

It would put an end to $80 meals, as it suggests a daily per diem of $50, or up to $65 with itemized receipts. The mayor and council members grappled with the diem rate, but settled on the suggested per diem with the potential for additional funds for ‘‘exceptional circumstances” to be approved by the city manager.

It would also preclude alcohol reimbursement and would mandate the traveler be responsible for additional charges, including luxury accommodations.

Also, funded spouse travel would be limited to only the annual National League of Cities and Maryland Municipal League main conferences.

Humpton said the draft policy was largely based on the practices of nearby cities of comparable size.

‘‘[City] staff grappled with this probably more than you all can imagine, to try to develop something that we thought was reasonable and flexible,” he said during the hearing.

However, Councilman Henry F. Marraffa Jr. said he believed the mayor and council members already are frugal spenders while traveling, and that the whole matter is a ‘‘nonstarter” when the expenses are compared to the city’s annual operating budget of about $45 million.

He added that no one has complained about the current system.

‘‘If we have something that’s not broken, my question is why are we going to fix it?” Marraffa said.

Councilman John B. Schlichting agreed, noting that while he approves of codifying the policy, he said city staff arranged every single dinner for mayor and city council members and that the per diem structure seems unnecessary.

‘‘I don’t believe there’s been any abuse of our uncodified travel policy,” Schlichting said. ‘‘I don’t understand why we need this.”

Marraffa also said a per diem system could be fiscally troublesome and might create embarrassing situations where council members could not afford to attend dinners with elected officials from other cities.

Councilman Michael A. Sesma said he felt the current system is reasonable, and said bringing his wife to the conferences helps ‘‘reflect on things from a different perspective than we have” and makes his commitment to the city easier because it doesn’t require so much separation from his family.

Edens agreed that traveling is a juggling act in that it takes time away from elected officials’ jobs and families. However, she said the draft policy is a good compromise that could bring Gaithersburg closer in line with a common practice utilized by most cities and businesses.

‘‘It is a miniscule portion of the budget and I understand that, but we also have to look at how others are doing [it],” she said.

Councilman Stanley J. Alster said conferences provide a number of benefits for the city and its leaders, and that while they spend conservatively, traveling is the cost of doing business.

Still, Alster said he approved of formalizing the policy for reasonable guidelines.

Mayor Sidney A. Katz also said he believed city leaders are frugal during trips, and noted that a couple years ago they voluntarily stopped receiving compensation for alcohol.

Still, he said given that spousal compensation isn’t ‘‘an industry accepted practice,” he said the draft policy forges a reasonable compromise.

‘‘I haven’t heard a good reason far as I’m concerned why we shouldn’t be doing as others,” Katz said.

A revised version of the policy is expected for consideration during a later public meeting.

On The Menu

Here’s an itemized look at some of the fare Gaithersburg taxpayers paid for during a $1,134 dinner for 14 at the 2003 National League of Cities conference in Nashville, Tenn.

$20 for two Grey Goose Up martinis

$104 for two Surf & Turf with 8 oz. additions

$30 for two Hartford chardonnays

$27 for three Ketel One Up martinis

$6 for two Miller Lites

$32 for a ribeye dinner

$14 for a tuna appetizer

Source: The Dec. 11, 2003, receipt from the Sunset Grill

In Comparison

Gaithersburg officials reviewed the travel policies of several nearby governments. None except Gaithersburg compensates spousal travel or lodging. Only Greenbelt joins Gaithersburg in paying for spouses to attend banquets and conferences.

The following is the daily per diem policies they found.

Alexandria: $35

Bowie: No policy

Frederick: $40

Greenbelt: $50

Montgomery County: $35

Rockville: $39 to $64

Source: City of Gaithersburg