City council spending patterns
Today WOAI reporter Mireya Villareal provides a glimpse into the budgetary and spending habits of our city council members in all the districts. The report highlights mostly issues with the travel budget, with some council members exceeding their budget by almost $10,000 in the case of mayoral candidate Sheila McNeil. As you look at these budgets you notice that none of them exceeded their planned budgets for 2008. But when you look deeper you find that several significant line items were grossly exceeded, leading one to believe the item was abused for other purposes, travel being the most significant. So is there an issue with how our council members manage their offices?
McNeil’s budget issues are really with travel with the most controversial being her trip to the 2008 inaugural for President Obama, a trip that had questionable value to the city of San Antonio. McNeil had a small meeting with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar for a “policy summit” staged to coincide with the inaugural. Looking at the rest of her expenses she really was pretty frugal on items or kept spending tight with the budget. The only other expense she exceeded was for the car expense allowance which could be attributed to the high gas prices during the summer of 2008. Of note also is that McNeil didn’t leverage her printing, phone or fax services very much at all, meaning she didnt’ communicate that much with her constituents.
So let’s take a look at the other mayoral candidate on council, Diane Cibrian. Her travel was almost $5,000 over budget with a trip to Spain to look at renewable energy technologies as the cited reason. Granted she has been an advocate of these technologies but even I can spot a boondoggle like that. Aren’t there similar technologies like those in Spain in use in the U.S.? Granted it appears Spain does seem to be a leader in the use of hydrogen as an alternative source based on a quick Google search but that seems like an expensive way to learn more. By the way, McNeil was also on that trip to Spain with Cibrian.
In looking further at Cibrian’s budget it appears she spent far more than budgeted in the area of “Phone and Fax Services.” While she budgeted $127 for the item she spent over $5,800 during 2008, mostly on robocalls in the district. This is an item I have taken issue with several times before, being the recipient of them as a resident of District 8. Cibrian has used the robocall for many things, both in 2008 and in 2009. Most recently she used her council office to do a robocall for the ground breaking of a fire station on De Zavala, an obvious campaign push to get her constituents out to hear her speak. In my mind that is an abuse of city funds that could have been managed differently.
All of the council members stayed below their budgets with most asking for around $350,000 but spending around $250,000-275,000. Cibrian probably matched the closest with her aggregate allocation but still spent around $250,000 in her office. Justin Rodriguez of District 7 used print, mailing, phone and fax services $6,000 more than he budgeted, a sign of communicating with constituents. Delicia Herrera was another traveling council member, exceeding her travel budget by about $10,000 but managing the rest within reasonable amounts. Lourdes Galvan was a heavy mailer exceeding budget by about $9,000 as was Jennifer Ramos.
For all the attention given Mary Alice Cisneros she really didn’t abuse the budget that much. She exceeded travel by about $4,000. However apparently she was caught misrepresenting her expenses, claiming she and Henry paid for expenses out of their own pockets. WOAI seems to find differently but this could be just a mix up in classification. I can’t really fault her that much on her finances. It appears she’s just an easy target these days after her missteps during the 2009 campaign. I can’t excuse her other council activities but I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon on this one.
So, in the end, is there really a problem here? Yes and no. Let’s start with the no aspect. Because council members have never exceeded their budgets and usually come in around $100,000 lower than allocated they seem to be frugal spenders. After all, they are managing to tight economical times with city funds. On the surface there’s really not a problem here if you are just looking at raw figures. But, as they say, “the devil’s in the details.”
Any of you who have managed busines finances know that when you set a budget you have to make hard decisions on what you can afford to do during the year based on that budget. Council budgets are really classified in the operating expenses of the city. They are a necessary evil and must be included every budget cycle. But if you overbudget for the year in operating expenses it forces you to make choices regarding discretionary spending or investment. You have to forego some projects you really intended to do. So by council overbudgeting by about $820,000 it means that much was unavailable for potential projects.
So, in my mind, aside from the abuse of travel for boondoggles that’s where the real problem lies in the council member’s budgets. They ask for more than they expect to spend and end up forcing budget decisions in other areas of city government that could have been avoided. Now, are you ready for the real kicker? The worst council member for planning a budget was John Clamp, who is a CPA and CMP (project manager). He overallocated by around $126,000 for 2008. In my mind he should have been the best of the bunch in budgeting. I guess those designations are worth about as much as the paper they are printed.
What really needs to occur is a better budgeting process for council members to allow for more accurate spending of city funds and less bloat in their budgets. This is going to take some tough review and might be a challenge, especially for the rookies that are coming on this term. I would hope new council members will ask for the budgets of their predecessors and talk to the city’s finance department about how these budgets were used. That will help them get a better sense for where to spend the dollars. It would be my first task if elected.