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7/30/2009

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Other people's money
City commissioners get an open line of credit you get the bill

 

If you had a $30,000 annual slush fund courtesy of someone else, what would you do?

If you were Orlando city commissioner Daisy Lynum, you’d travel. A lot. You’d fly to places like Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, going to conferences and staying in top-flight hotels, all on the taxpayers’ dime. In a two-year period, you’d rack up at least $22,538 in travel expenses.

If you were commissioner Sam Ings, you’d spend more than $31,000 over a two-year period on your city-issued Visa, including parties in the city’s Amway Arena skybox, $350-plus bills at soul food restaurant Mama Nems’ and trips.

In the abstract, these numbers represent a miniscule portion of the city’s $359 million annual general fund budget. But at a time when Mayor Buddy Dyer is threatening to lay off cops and firefighters to plug a $40 million budget deficit, looking at how the city’s six commissioners spend their travel and community funds sheds light on how they view their stewardship of public money.

As it turns out, some are much thriftier than others.

If their planned 3 percent pay raise goes through for the 2009-2010 budget, commissioners each will earn $49,383 for a part-time job; total compensation for each is between $130,000 and $150,000, including a salary and benefits for their aides. In addition to the salary and benefits packages awarded to commissioners, each gets two pots of money to spend as they please: a district budget and a capital improvement project fund, or CIP.

The CIP is fixed at $100,000 per year per district. If the commissioners don’t spend it, what’s left rolls over, which is why District 1 commissioner Phil Diamond had more than $450,000 in his CIP account at the end of 2008, according to city records. This money pays for things like speed bumps, brick street restorations and, in one case, a $4,420 “Lake Eola swan statue pedestal.” These are minor projects that benefit constituents.

Each commissioner’s district budget, on the other hand, is divvied up into pots of money for travel, community expenses and supplies. Commissioners don’t all get the same amount of money in their district budgets. District 3 commissioner Robert Stuart’s district budget is $22,539. Ings’ budget is more than double that: $48,679 in the current fiscal year. Lynum comes a close second with a $45,671 district budget. Besides Lynum and Ings, no commissioner’s district budget is more than $26,000, according to city records.

For the four commissioners on the low end of the spectrum, supplies and other operating expenses eat up half of their budgets. For instance, of Stuart’s $22,539, $13,610 is dedicated to supplies. For Ings and Lynum, however, supplies constitute a much lower proportion, roughly 20 percent.

Whereas Diamond has $13,000 set aside in his community fund and nothing for travel, Ings has $20,610 for events and another $11,039 in his travel fund. Lynum has $15,000 in each pot.

Only one commissioner has lodged an official objection regarding the lopsided pots of money. In a May letter to the mayor, Stuart recommended reducing and evening out the commissioners’ district budgets, though he concedes that his suggestion has little chance of passing. According to Stuart’s letter, the commissioners’ district budgets were fairly uniform up until the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Since then, Ings and Lynum have seen their budgets skyrocket, while the other commissioners’ have stayed roughly the same.

The city can’t exactly say why that is the case. Spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh says Ings and Lynum requested the increases, and the finance department and city council approved them.

One could argue that Lynum’s and Ings’ larger budgets are justified because they represent the city’s poorest districts. Perhaps that is what Lynum and Ings would have argued, had they returned phone calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story. (All six commissioners were contacted and asked to explain their district-budget expenditures. Only Stuart and Diamond responded. See the accompanying text on pages 12 and 13 for their quotes.)

But what’s in it for constituents? Do the residents of District 5 benefit from Lynum’s many out-of-state trips? Do the people Ings represents get anything in return when he spends $500 at an Orlando Magic game?

No one who has ever sat through a city council meeting can argue that Ings and Lynum are better informed or offer more critical insights than, say, commissioners Stuart and Patty Sheehan, who travel and spend considerably less. In fact, Lynum frequently misses council meetings because she’s out of town, including one on July 13 when she was in Biloxi, Miss.

What follows is a sampling of the non-supplies-related district budget expenses commissioners have accumulated in the last two years; this is not everything they’ve spent. It’s a glimpse into how your money is spent by your elected officials when they are allowed to spend it on just about anything.

Sam Ings, District 6
Annual district
budget: $48,679

August 2007 Ings goes to Ft. Lauderdale for a conference. You pay for his hotel, gas and rental car: $1,202. He also shells out $948 for a crime prevention week picnic and a “rental,” though the records don’t indicate what was rented.

Oct. 25-Nov. 7, 2007 Ings spends $33 at Old Time Pottery; $230 at Great Western Meats, a food-service distributor (later, his card received a $100 credit from this purchase); $41 at Publix; $80 at Party City; $84 at Wal-Mart; $159 at Great Western Meats; $17 at Wal-Mart; $111 at another Wal-Mart; $737 at Handy Rentals, which rents party supplies; $21 at a 7-Eleven; $95 at Wal-Mart; $70 at Publix; and $177 at another Publix.

Nov. 12-18, 2007 Ings goes to New Orleans for a National League of Cities conference (the NLC is an organization that lobbies on behalf of municipalities). The trip costs taxpayers $2,664. Sheehan goes to the same conference and charges the city about $1,000 less.

December 2007 Ings buys “Christmas bears,” stockings and candy for a parade: $695.

February 2008 You pay $150 for Ings’ membership in the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and another $200 to register for a NOBLE conference. This month, he also rents a car to drive to Atlanta ($120, plus about $100 in gas) and gets a hotel room ($390). When he gets back, Ings spends $590 on food while watching an Orlando Magic basketball game from the city’s skybox. Then he goes to a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., for which you spend $874.

March 2008 Ings spends $243 at Joissu, a novelty gift shop on.B. McLeod Road, for what is labeled “miscellaneous.” He spends another $78 there for “duck whistle bubbles.” For what was apparently an Easter egg hunt, Ings spends $467 on eggs at Publix, and $723 with Handy Rentals, the equipment rental company. He also pays Orlando Food Partners, the food-service company that caters the arena and other city venues, $579.

April 2008 Ings spends another $731 for food from Orlando Food Partners (he later received a $35 refund). He also spends $469 to print invitations for an event and $284 at Johnson’s Diner.

May 2008 Ings spends $3,187 to set up a tent and audio at the Hawkins Park Cultural Festival.

June 2008 Ings spends $91 for funeral flowers.

August 2008 Ings goes to a Florida League of Cities Conference in Tampa. Between a rental car, registration, hotel, parking and gas, the tab comes to $1,086. He pays $745 to register for a National League of Cities conference in Orlando and $1,567 for a New York City hotel for a NOBLE conference.

November 2008 Ings spends $437 on food inside the city’s Amway Arena skybox.

January 2009 Ings drops $358 for a luncheon at Mama Nems’. He also pays $350 to participate in a Martin Luther King Day parade.

February 2009 Ings registers for another NOBLE conference ($450) and buys “various tickets” for that conference ($210).

Feb. 22, 2009 Ings goes to another Magic game. In the city’s skybox, he runs up another $487 in food charges and $92 in service charges for 20 orders of chicken wings ($9.95 each), a dozen orders of fruits and another dozen orders of vegetables, plus 10 deli platters.

April 2009 Another month, another Magic game. Tab: $421. Surely, such perks don’t influence commissioners’ votes on half-billion dollar basketball arenas.

Ings did not return a phone call seeking comment.


Daisy Lynum, District 5
Annual district
budget: $45,671

June 2007 Lynum goes to China for the U.S.-China Business Matchmaking Conference in Shanghai. Her Visa bill doesn’t account for the whole cost of the trip, but we know that she charged taxpayers $325 for her per diem costs and $233 for trip insurance. In the same month, she goes to Ft. Lauderdale, where between the rental car and hotel she runs up a $527 bill.

July 2007 Lynum goes to Indianapolis for a National League of Cities board of directors meeting. Airfare is $234, and her stay at the Conrad Hotel runs $756 for three nights. On July 17, she sends $50 via PayPal to something called Friendsmove in California for a power lunch. On July 23, she books a flight to New Orleans for $264.

August 2007 Lynum pays $712 for a hotel in Biloxi, Miss., and books airfare to Los Angeles for $382.

September 2007 Lynum spends $483 at an.A. hotel.

Dec. 18, 2007 Lynum pays $304 to treat 10 members of a Chinese delegation to the buffet at the Grand Bohemian.

January 2008 Lynum spends $243 on a car for the MLK Day parade and $32 to gas it up. She also buys airfare to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials for $394.

February 2008 Lynum spends $230 for a Washington, D.C., hotel room. She also spends another $279 on airfare to D.C. for a National League of Cities conference in March. This time, her stay at the Hilton costs Orlando taxpayers $1,347.

April 2008 Registering Lynum for the NLC conference costs $815. She also spends $604 on catering for a black history event, $92 to have dinner with the NLC president and $219 for airfare to Philadelphia.

May 2008 Lynum pays $450 for a Delta Sigma Theta convention. She also spends $486 on her Visa for another China trip and $800 on catering for a UCF Medical School reception.

June 2008 Lynum travels to Philly for a Women in Municipal Government convention, where she spends $842 on a hotel and $325 on registration.

July 2008 Lynum flies to Huntsville, Ala., for another National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials meeting. Airfare is $436, hotel is $470, and cabs run her another $64. She also spends $332 for airfare to Atlanta for a NBC-LEO function, $427 at an Atlanta hotel and $89 more on taxis.

Aug. 16, 2008 Taxpayers fund Lynum’s stay at the Amelia Island Plantation, a resort hotel off Florida’s northeast coast that bills itself as “Florida’s premier AAA-Four Diamond destination island resort in perfect harmony with nature.” It costs $209. She’s there for a Black Business Investment Fund meeting. The BBIF is a nonprofit that receives most of its income from local governments. Lynum sits on its board and has steered development deals its way [see “A sucker deal,” July 28, 2005].

September 2008 Lynum buys plane tickets to Washington, D.C., for $239. Her hotel bill for the NBC-LEO trip (which appears on October’s Visa statement) totals $685.

November 2008 Lynum attends the National League of Cities’ Conference of Cities. Lynum and a friend stay at the Marriott at a cost of $1,158, according to records. The conference is in Orlando. The hotel is on World Center Drive. It’s a 25-minute drive from City Hall. On Nov. 15 taxpayers pay $370 so Lynum’s aide, Marcia Davis, can stay at the Caribe Royale Orlando, another hotel on World Center Drive.

January 2009 Lynum pays $710 for the National League of Cities conference, again in Washington, D.C. She spends $1,130 on a hotel.

March 2009 Lynum spends $306 on airfare and $974 for yet another conference in Washington, D.C.

Lynum could not be reached for a comment.


Tony Ortiz, Distric 2
Annual district
budget: $25,965

June 2008 Soon after taking office, Ortiz goes to lunch with some constituents and spends $53.

August 2008 Ortiz goes to Tampa for the Florida League of Cities conference. He pays $327 for a hotel (including taxes and parking).

September 2008 Ortiz pays $35 for a lunch at Beef O’Brady’s, $103 for food from Publix for a homeowners association meeting and $81 for refreshments at a town hall.

November 2008 Ortiz shells out $1,247 for a “family event day.”

April 2009 Ortiz travels to Washington, D.C. for a meeting of Hispanic elected officials, at a cost of $179. His annual travel budget is $3,850, and he has another $9,800 set aside for events and community functions.

Ortiz did not return a phone call seeking comment.





Patty Sheehan, District 4
Annual district
budget: $25,217

Oct. 16-17, 2007 Sheehan and her police liaison, Officer James Young, travel to Sunrise, Fla., to witness the opening of an IKEA. They stay at the Vacation Village, for a combined total of $140. She spends $66 on gas getting there.

November 2007 Sheehan attends the National League of Cities conference in New Orleans. Registration is $645, and she spends $587 on lodging (that’s $174 per night at the Chateau Sonesta). Her total trip costs $1,501 – more than $1,000 less than Ings charged the city on this very same trip.

January 2009 Sheehan rents a car for the MLK Day parade. She pays $132. As of Orlando Weekly’s public records request in early June, that was the only expense Sheehan had billed to her city credit card this year. She too has a rather small travel allowance – just $3,793 in the current fiscal year. She has just shy of $12,000 budgeted for community events.

Sheehan did not return a phone call seeking comment.






Phil Diamond, Distric 1
Annual district
budget: $22,608

October 2007 Diamond hosts his fall picnic, for which he spends $1,124.

January 2008 Diamond rents a car for the MLK Day parade for $50. He gets a $2.75 fine for running a toll.

March 15, 2008 Diamond hosts a picnic in Amhurst Park. He spends $2,493.

October 2008 Diamond hosts yet another picnic and food drive. He spends $1,206.

January 2009 Diamond rents a car for the MLK Day parade ($78). This time, it has an E-Pass, on which he spends $3.50.

March 14, 2009 Diamond has another picnic. He spends $1,598. Many of Diamond’s expenses don’t appear on Visa bills because he, like all the other commissioners except Ings, pays for them out of pocket and gets reimbursed by the city. (Ings tends to use his Visa instead.) Still, his entire events and community fund budget for this two-year span is $26,000.

Asked about his expenses, Diamond says, “I’ve tried to focus on doing things that are things my constituents want me to be focused on.”


Robert Stuart, District 3
Annual district
budget: $22,539

May 2007 Stuart goes to Washington, D.C., for a regional fly-in to lobby for federal money. He spends $1,700.

April 2008 Stuart goes to Washington, D.C., for the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce’s legislative fly-in. $1,700 covers his flight, hotel and registration.

December 2008 Stuart pays $164 for coffee and dessert at an event. Of all the commissioners, he has the least amount of money allocated for events, just $7,010. He also has a $1,500 travel fund.

Asked about commissioners’ expenses, Stuart says, “I believe our commissioners ought to be part-time commissioners, and ought to travel on behalf of the city.”

Moreover, he says, there should be a “bona fide city benefit” to such travel – and to demonstrate that benefit, commissioners should give a report on their taxpayer-funded trips. Outside City Hall, that’s common sense. On this city council, Stuart’s is apparently quite a radical idea.

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