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Officials under fire for city spending
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Social Circle council members reexamined their travel and training practices after discovering they had been violating city policy for several years, causing the city to be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.

Based on information obtained through an Open Records Request, council members have spent nearly $50,000 on travel and training since July 2007, but an analysis by The News shows around $17,000 has been spent on dining, including upscale restaurants and room service, paying for council members’ spouses and children to attend the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) Annual Convention in Savannah and other personal costs.

According to the city’s travel and expenses policy, room service and movies are specifically listed as not being reimbursable, yet the city paid $1,436 for those items during the past four and half budget years.

Council members Angela Porter and Trays Price most frequently ordered room service and movies, but both said they had no idea they were violating city policy prior to Mayor Hal Dally bringing it to their attention.

“These are policies we’ve just been made aware of. They’re not anything new, but they’re not anything we knew about,” Porter said Friday night. “It’s never been an issue before Mayor Dally brought it up to us and made us aware of how we are to conduct our training and dinners.”

The council approved a slightly revised travel and expenses policy Feb. 22, with the major change stating that per diem food costs were reduced to $40 per day and were broken down by meal at $10 for breakfast and $15 each for lunch and dinner.

The council also agreed to pay for their families’ costs in the future, because only necessary costs are supposed to be covered by the city.

Soon after Dally took office, he made it a point to follow up on rumblings he’d heard in the community that many officials were abusing the city’s policy. Dally said he noticed the expenses when he was looking through the budget after taking office in January.

“During the (mayoral) campaign I had a lot of people in town question the amount of money they were spending on travel and training and that was the reason I investigated the numbers (originally),” Dally said. “That was the reason for going down this path.”

What he found alarmed him. After combing over financial documents, Dally quickly addressed the spending with the city council.

“Those numbers started jumping out. I have a banking background and have spent my career analyzing financial statements and tax returns and I have a pretty good talent for pulling out numbers, and they jumped out to me,” Dally said Friday night. “I looked into the policy and brought it their attention so we could operate under the policies that a previous mayor and council had approved.”

Multiple council members frequently ate at restaurants in the The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, including Aqua Star, an upscale seafood restaurant, and Midnight Sun, a cocktail lounge. Total dining bills for a five-day trip often ran several hundred dollars. At the 2011 annual conference, Porter and her family spent a combined $1,025.72 on dining and room service.

“I want to reiterate that this was a policy that was just brought to our attention and has never been an issue prior. I don’t want it to seem like I avoided or ignored a policy,” said Porter, who also questioned why the issue was suddenly a hot topic. She vaguely recalled a trip to Las Vegas taken several years ago by other council members and said no one objected at that time.

When told she and Price had the highest expenses, Porter said the comparison was unfair, because other members, former Mayor Jim Burgess in particular, would have meals paid for by someone else. Burgess was a former GMA employee and Porter said his close connections to GMA officials, led those officials to sometimes pay for his meals.

“I don’t think any of us have done anything intentionally wrong or have tried to deceive our citizens. It’s just never been an issue in the past,” she said.

For her part, Price said she had no idea she was doing something wrong. She said one of her priorities at this year’s convention is to suggest that the class for newly elected officials discusses travel and expense policies.

“I want to make sure things like that are covered in that class. I’m looking back and thinking that I relied on other people, and I can just kick myself for doing that,” Price said Friday night. “Going forward, I definitely will change this. I’ve already registered for Savannah and just registered myself. If my family does go, my husband and I will be responsible for everything we do.”

Another policy revision that the council plans to enact is to limit each council member to spending a maximum of $2,600 a year on training and travel. The council has a budget of $13,000, which would be divided evenly between four council members and the mayor. The city was actually well under budget in 2008, just under budget in 2009 and 2010 and over budget in 2011 at $14,617.

The change would have the greatest effect on Councilman David Keener, who has attended 14 different training sessions since taking office in late 2009, at a total cost of more than $13,000. The hotel room cost itself has been the largest chunk of the expenses, as Keener has never ordered room service or an in-room movie. Classes are often $215 apiece. Registration is generally $290 but is often only required for the annual convention.

When asked about criticism that training classes could be seen as free vacation opportunities, Keener refuted that opinion.

“Training classes are just what that implies; training classes, and are by no means considered by me as a vacation. Sitting in a typically cold room on a hard chair all day long does not seem like a vacation and in reality it is work,” Keener said in a Friday e-mail. “Each class is strictly monitored for attendance as well as punctuality. In some cases, classes may run well beyond a normal eight-hour day. Frequently pre-class prep work and evening/after-class “homework” is necessary and required. 

“As for the frequency and location of the training events, it is out of my hands. GMA and The Carl Vinson Institute determine when and where the classes are to be held annually.”

Keener said he has attended seven classes in Atlanta and the surrounding region and only four out of the region, not including the annual convention which is always in Savannah.

“In the past the city has paid a small registration fee for our spouses to attend the GMA convention, and in 2009-2010, because it was traditionally done for the GMA convention, some of my spouse’s meal costs were reimbursed,” Keener said. “These meal expenses were what we considered to be reasonable and customary and within the allowable per diem amount. It will no longer be our practice to be reimbursed for a spouse’s expense.”

Keener said his wife will continue to attend the convention at the couple’s expense.

Price and Porter have both taken their spouse and children in years past, a step both said was necessary as they had young children. Social Circle has previously paid the registration cost for the children as well, but the two councilwomen said they will now cover those costs.

GMA spokeswoman Amy Henderson said the spouse and children charges, generally $120 and $60 respectively, cover transportation to the Savannah International Trade and Conference Center, some food and beverages as well as the Festival of Foods, the only real meal event at the annual convention. Porter and Price have each brought three children on occasion.

As far as how cities handle spouse payment or reimbursement, Henderson said it varies by city and she had no general rule.

Council travel spending numbers were not immediately available for Covington and Porterdale, but according to the cities’ travel expense policies, both cities have per diem rates for food costs and both specify that only necessary lodging and other costs are covered, which generally does not include any costs related to spouses. Porterdale breaks its per diem rate out by meal and even includes different rates for high cost areas, such as Savannah. Covington follows the IRS per diem rates.

Dally said Social Circle looked at policies in Commerce, Monroe and Winder when tweaking its policy.

One potential problem with not following proper expense protocol is that certain expenses that are paid or reimbursed by the city can actually count as income for council members under state law. 

As a result, council members have to file these as income for tax purposes. It is unclear if this statute was applicable in Social Circle’s case or had any affect on council members’ tax history. The GMA provides a guide on travel expenses, which Dally said he gave to all council members.

Social Circle council members make $2,400 a year and the mayor makes $4,800 a year. The city of Social Circle has an $8.5 million budget, including its water and gas sales.

“(The past situation) is what it is, but we’ll do better going forward,” Dally said. “We have to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ money and that’s what we’re going to be.”