June 20, 2011

City Managers Push Service Cuts While Spending Over $1.1 Million On Cell Phones & Texting

A2P Notes: This is filed under “Scoops & Scores” because you read it first here.

In response to multiple FOIAs, information released by city officials shows that perks including monthly car allowances, city-provided cars, mileage reimbursements, cell phone allowances, cell phone costs, meals, stays at resorts and spas, entertainment and travel for Ann Arbor’s top managers and staff topped $2 million dollars between 2008 and June 2011. The majority of the $2 million came from the city’s General Fund, which pays for police, fire, and other citizen services.

Throughout the country, cities and counties strapped for cash are trying harder than ever to make ends meet. The day after Democratic Governor Jerry Brown took office in January 2011, he asked department heads to collect 96,000 state-provided cell phones. A June 17, 2011 piece published in the Long Beach Post reports that, “The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors directed county department chiefs to review their respective cell phone and data card use following an audit of the Department of Child and Family Services identified $514,000 wasted on phones and devices that were never used or used for what was deemed ‘questionable’ purposes, such as calling other countries.”

In June of 2010 Jim Fouts, Mayor of Warren, Michigan cut the cell phone allowances of all the 125 municipal city employees who had been receiving the money. Fouts also eliminated the monthly car allowances paid to city employees. Fouts told the Macomb Daily, “These are austere times, and sacrifices have to be made by everyone.”

In 2009, Washtenaw County Commissioner Kristin Judge turned in her county-provided cell phone and suggested that Washtenaw County could save $350,000 per year by cutting the cell phone perk. Ann Arbor County Commissioner Conan Smith accused Judge of “grandstanding.” In an October 2009 interview with A2Politico Judge said, “In my opinion, the cell phone budget is one of the most obvious places to find immediate savings. As much as I dislike this statement, ‘Everything is on the table,’ I will continue to look at the entire budget line by line. Some people think commissioners should not look at each line of the budget, but I disagree. I have been accused of micromanaging because I want to see where all the money is going, but I will not vote on $1 unless I understand the purpose of the spending and what we get for that $1. The people of Washtenaw County expect and deserve that from their elected officials.”

While city leaders in Michigan and elsewhere are slashing vacation days, longevity pay, and other perks for city employees in an effort to run tighter ships, information provided in response to FOIA requests shows that under the leadership of Mayor John Hieftje, Ann Arbor City Council, and former City Administrator Roger Fraser, Ann Arbor is running a luxury liner—for the benefit of city managers.

Since 2008, Mayor and Council have looked the other way while Fraser, his city staffers and city managers have rewarded themselves with perks such as meals out costing thousands of dollars charged to taxpayers, stays at four diamond hotels, spas and resorts, again charged to Ann Arbor taxpayers, clothing and theme park tickets charged to taxpayers, padded mileage claims reimbursed, and monthly car allowances awarded to city managers who work desk jobs. Along with the other perks, the salaries of city managers have been bumped up by the use of various kinds of “allowances” including cell phone allowances, and city-supplied cell phones. Since 2008, Ann Arbor has spent $1,107,060.80 on cell phone charges, cell phones, cell phone allowances, data and texting plans for city staffers and non-unionized managers. The city checkbook register, available online, shows payments made to nine wireless service providers by the City of Ann Arbor between 2008 and June 2010 including Sprint, USA Mobility Wireless, ATT Wireless and Continental Wireless.

To date in the current fiscal year, Ann Arbor has spent $119,032.78 on cell phone charges, and $147,760 on cell phone allowances according to information contained in FOIAed documents.

Third Ward Councilmember  Stephen Kunselman commented that the issue of whether city staff should enjoy such a wide variety of perks costing taxpayers millions has already been addressed. He commented via email on the issue of perks for city staff members in light of cuts to police, fire and other citizen services: “I have been under the impression that these issues have been addressed where needed; if they haven’t then they will be if there is any impropriety.”

A search of the Council minutes back through 2008 revealed no resolutions by any City Council member related to the issue of staffer perks such as meals out, stays as luxury resorts and spas, car allowances to staffers with desk jobs, or the cell phone spending.

Ingrid Ault, the Executive Director of Think Local First, and who is opposing Kunselman for his seat on Council, did not respond to repeated requests for comment concerning her stance on whether the city should be paying out millions in staffer perks while cutting police, fire and other citizen services. Ault’s single page web site has three links for visitors to donate money, but has no links to information about how she would approach any issue facing the city.

Marwan Issa, also opposing Kunselman, has no web site up yet (Update: the day after this piece was posted, Issa out up a campaign web site: http://www.marwanissa.com. Tip o’ the keyboard to Mark Koroi.)

Each month, Ann Arbor spends $14,700 on cell phone allowances for city managers and staffers. Included in the list is 15th District Circuit Court Judge the Honorable Christopher Easthope, who receives a cell phone allowance of $146 per month. Magistrate Margaret Currie also receives a cell phone allowance in the amount of $110 per month. Neither Chief Judge Julie Creal nor Chief Judge Pro Tempore Elizabeth Polland Hines receives a cell phone allowance or a city cell phone, however. City Attorney Stephen Postema not only receives a cell phone from the city, but a monthly cell phone allowance of $146, as well, making Postema a “double-dipper.” To download a list of city staff who receive cell phone allowances, click here.

In addition to Postema, Ann Arbor taxpayers supply cell phones to 86 other city employees, most of whom work desk jobs and most of whom are non-unionized top-level managers. One-third of the city’s 706 employees receive the cell phone perk in the form of a city-supplied phone, monthly phone allowance, or both.

The City Charter requires Council as a group to directly oversee the work of the City Administrator. Council’s Labor Committee makes recommendations to Council concerning the compensation and evaluation of the Administrator’s performance, as well as that of the City Attorney, Stephen Postema. The Labor Committee consists of John Hiefje, Stephen Rapundalo, Second Ward Council member Tony Derezinski, and Fourth Ward Council members Marcia Higgins and Margie Teall. In essence, unlike the Budget Committee, on which there is one Council member from each of the city’s five wards, John Hieftje has appointed to the Labor Committee Council members from only two of the city’s five wards. The result has been that a small group of Council members, representing a small number of the city’s voters, have been controlling the City Administrator and setting city policy.

A City Council member seeking re-election responded via email to a concerned citizen who’d complained about the perks for city managers that the “amounts involved are so small, the issue is not worth pursuing.”

In 2009, City Administrator Roger Fraser recommended to Council that Mack Pool be closed to save $102,000, and to stop curbside Christmas tree pick-up to save $34,000. In 2009, the taxpayers spent $257,385.16 on cell phones, data and texting packages, and cell phone allowances for Fraser’s top-level managers, $84,900 in car allowance payments to many of the same individuals, as well as $55,800 for meals out and stays at resorts and spas, again for many of the same individuals. City Council did not close the pool, but rather raised user fees 25 percent on the recommendation of a Task Force headed by First Ward Council member Sandi Smith.

Fifth Ward Council member Mike Anglin is running for re-election. He had this to say in response to A2Politico’s questions about the perks: “As Ann Arbor moves towards spending reductions, all items of the budget need to be examinedas to their benefits.A guide in this direction would be a commitment to providing services to the tapayers. Spending that does not meet this criterion needs to be examined and discussed through the Budget Committee, and City Council at large.As a member of the Budget Committee I will bring these issuesbefore the City’s CFO so that other Council members can be aware of them and take needed actions. Savings to the Budget will allow for increase in services to the community.”

Neil Elyakin, a Democrat challenging Anglin, does not list city finance or the budget among the “issues” in his web site. He did not respond to multiple requests to comment on whether it’s appropriate to spend on staffer perks while cutting citizen services.

Like First Ward Council member Sabra Briere, Second Ward Council member Stephen Rapundalo, Fourth Ward Council member Marcia Higgins voted to approve the most recent budget that cut police and fire and other citizen services. All three Council members refused to respond to questions about whether continued spending on perks for city managers was excessive in light of cuts to police and fire they recently voted in favor of making.

Democrat Tim Hull is challenging Rapundalo in the August primary. At a recent candidate forum, Hull told voters preesent that, “While the current economic situation has necessitated difficult city budget decisions, police and fire services should be the last areas to be cut.” Hull added, ”If elected I will look to ensure the city is fiscally responsible and sets its budget priorities based on community needs.”

You can contact John Hieftje and City Council members with your feedback and suggestions by clicking this link. 

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