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Expense accountable? 

When viewed through the lens of the $225 million general fund, the 2012 City Council expense account is a trifle.

And yet, deciding how to spend $48,200 next year will be one of the first tests of the Councilors' cooperative skills, and their ability to stretch a government dollar. Thus far, the new Council has been operating under the 2011 budget it inherited from the previous Council. And it's been handling the discretionary portion with, well, not a lot of discretion.

As of a couple weeks ago, the new Council had reported $9,334.09 in business expenses since new members took office in mid-April. The money hasn't been spread evenly among the nine members. (See the breakdown below.)

In seven months, President Scott Hente reported just $35 in expenditures, and Councilor Merv Bennett $70. The three top spenders, Councilors Tim Leigh and Brandy Williams, and President Pro Tem Jan Martin, had racked up $3,362.05, $1,919.77 and $1,639.15 respectively — mostly because they're the only Councilors to have taken city-funded business trips during that time. They've each taken two, with Leigh also having gone on a Colorado Springs Utilities-funded trip that cost $1,365.42.

Members of special boards, like the Colorado Municipal League or National League of Cities, go to meetings. Other times, Council sends forth a volunteer for a specific trip. No expenses stink of any ethical breach.

But beyond travel, there is little consistency in what Councilors report as expenses.

Fill 'er up

Councilor Angela Dougan, known for her objections to city-funded birthday cakes, is one of only three Councilors who have charged the city for in-town mileage — a fact that obviously isn't lost on her colleagues.

Following Dougan's failed call to eliminate snacks at a recent budget mark-up session, Councilor Bernie Herpin remarked, "I didn't raise an issue on paying Council members for mileage when they travel within town, even though I don't ask for that reimbursement, because I don't think Council members should suffer out of pocket for serving the citizens, considering that we earn $3 an hour."

Looking ahead, Council will examine its budget, decide what qualifies as an expense, and consider who should hold the purse strings.

In past years, Council expenses haven't made much of a splash. In 2010, Council as a whole spent $617 on mileage reimbursements, $2,346 on in-town meetings, and $6,843 on out-of-town travel.

Next year, Council's budget for car mileage will increase 315 percent over 2011, from $5,450 to $22,600. In-town meetings will go from $4,055 to $5,423. Out-of-town meetings are skyrocketing from $7,435 to $21,000.

Martin says the outgoing Council insisted on a tight lid. She says it was an "unwritten rule" that councilors not ask for reimbursement for in-town mileage — a remark that Hente agrees with.

"But the new Council really has a different take on that," Martin says. "And they really feel like Councilors should be reimbursed for their local travel."

Dougan, Val Snider and Williams have charged the city $562.25, $569.87 and $77.70, respectively, in local mileage. Dougan says that with gas prices soaring, the reimbursement is sensible.

"I don't feel like it should cost you to do the city's business," she says.

There are similar gray areas. Councilor Lisa Czelatdko, for instance, charged the city $310 for membership to the Winter Night Club, an upper-crust, invitation-only society that meets for dinner five times a year at The Broadmoor. Martin was a member in past years and says the speakers were sometimes informative to her as a Councilor. But she paid her own way.

Should that be expensed?

"That's what makes this so difficult," Martin says. "I really don't think Council wants to be in a position to judge what's valuable and what isn't."

Yours and mine

Council may be relieved of that burden, after a Dec. 5 retreat to address issues like communication, organization and expenses.

Council Liaison Aimee Cox, responding to members' wishes, has a rough new proposal for the 2012 expense budget that would cover group purchases and required fees and trips, then divvy the rest into separate accounts.

Thus, Councilors would be allocated about $4,300 apiece, free from scrutiny. It could be even more if the Council stops paying dues for traditional memberships to outside organization, as some wish.

Martin says she could see food, mileage, trip expenditures and even babysitting as appropriate expenses. But she and others expect strong guidelines for individual accounts.

That sounds fair to Dougan, who feels with separate accounts, each Councilor would be careful with limits.

"It helps me to be more accountable," Dougan says. "When I go to something, I [will] know exactly what it costs."

Leigh, acknowledging he's drawn the most expense funds thus far (and wouldn't mind spending more), reluctantly agrees. "To be fair," he says, "every Councilor probably ought to have an allocation."

Others are less enthusiastic. Hente feels a combined budget allows Council to do what's best for Council, not individual members. "I think I would rather keep it in a big pool and then we could use it as we see fit," Hente says. "I just think if we keep it as a pool, it would give us more flexibility."

stanley@csindy.com

2011 Individual Council Expenses
  • City Council looks to rewrite its rules on members' reimbursed expenses.

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