How Are Local Public Agencies Spending Your Tax Dollars?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. "Travel and business expense reimbursements are usual and necessary costs for any organization." That’s a quote from San Diego Taxpayer Association president Lani Lutar, but she goes on to say those reimbursements can open up many opportunities for unethical spending of public dollars. And so the Taxpayers Association has just issued a report on how public agencies in San Diego are handling their travel and expense accounts. The report finds a wide inconsistency in reimbursement policies and says there are many loopholes for potential abuse of public funds. Joining me to discuss the new report is my guest. JoAnne Golden is policy manager for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. JoAnne, good morning.
JOANNE GOLDEN (Policy Manager, San Diego County Taxpayers Association): Good morning. Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in. Now we invite our listeners to call in or go online with questions or comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727 or online, KPBS.org/thesedays. What inspired the County Taxpayers Association, JoAnne, to do a report on this subject?
GOLDEN: Well, Maureen, we actually started this report last summer. And I’m sure you remember all of the media coverage that was coming out regarding lucrative travel and business expenses among public agencies. And so we took this opportunity to review 11 local San Diego public agencies and we came up with a list of best practices on how their travel and expense reimbursement policies could be reformed to close any loopholes and insure that public funds are spent appropriately.
CAVANAUGH: Now, give us an idea of the public agencies that you looked at in this report.
GOLDEN: Sure. We did not canvas every public agency but we did send our recommendations out to every public agency in the region. We looked at the Centre City Development Corporation or commonly known as CCDC, we looked at the City and the County of San Diego, we looked at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and we also looked at the County Water Authority, the San Diego County Board of Education, Convention Center Corporation, the Port and a couple of others.
CAVANAUGH: Now was this report just focused on travel expenses? Or was it – did it also touch on other aspects of what could be an expense account that a government employee might have?
GOLDEN: Absolutely. It was whatever was in their travel and business expense reimbursement policies. And so that sometimes included expenses such as dry cleaning, which some agencies included as a reimbursable expense.
CAVANAUGH: Just while they were out of town, though, right?
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. Just to make that clear.
GOLDEN: Absolutely. But there were components within them that included in-town travel as well as out-of-town travel.
CAVANAUGH: Now what were some of the key findings besides the dry cleaning in your report?
GOLDEN: Well, I thought the biggest finding was many of the public agencies allowed for cash advances, which is reasonable. But some of them did not have a mechanism in place to return the unused money from traveling. So that was a pretty big finding, and that was actually one of our recommendations, is that they allow for cash advances, they create some type of tool or mechanism to put in their policy to return unused money so that way it’s not a blank check to the employee.
CAVANAUGH: Now when I started, when I did the introduction to this piece, I said that there were wide inconsistencies in reimbursement policies. Is that, indeed, one of the findings of this report?
GOLDEN: It is. One of the other inconsistencies is in regarding to expenditure limits, which is also one of our recommendations. Some agencies are – have no expenditure limits so they’re literally able to spend however much they want to on a hotel or however much they want to on some types of airfare so they could fly first class, for instance. Some public agencies are silent on this altogether. So there are a lot of inconsistencies in regard to expenditure limits and what is the most appropriate use of that money.
CAVANAUGH: Now 4 of the agencies that you reviewed use the U.S. General Services Administration guidelines for domestic lodging, meals and incidentals. What does that mean in real speak?
GOLDEN: The federal government, through the U.S. General Services Administration, basically sets expenditure limits for their employees so that way you know if you’re traveling to Washington, D.C. that you have x-amount to spend on lodging, x-amount to spend on meals and then x-amount to spend on incidentals, things like tipping. And so you know you cannot go beyond that because you won’t receive reimbursement beyond that amount. And for Washington, D.C., for example, it’s around $300.00 for a one-day, including meals, lodging as well as incidentals.
CAVANAUGH: So what agencies here have those guidelines in place?
GOLDEN: There are a couple. One of the interesting ones – There were a couple that changed them as I was doing this report last year, and the big one was the Airport Authority. Their board changed it, so their board is now subject to the GSA guidelines but their employees are not. And then there are also a couple, instead of using GSA guidelines, some use IRS guidelines and then some agencies like SEDC actually create their own. And…
CAVANAUGH: So it’s all across the board.
GOLDEN: It is.
CAVANAUGH: So is one of the recommendations of your report that they all adopt the guidelines that the U.S. General Services Administration uses?
GOLDEN: That’s absolutely our recommendation. We consider those to be extremely fair, especially since many of the public agencies in San Diego use that as a guideline anyway, but just kind of standardizing it and making sure that no one is spending more than what is outlined within the General Services Administration.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with JoAnne Golden. She’s policy manager for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. That association has just come out with a report about how public agencies in San Diego handle their travel and expense accounts. Now not only did you look into how these agencies were actually handling the money but how they’re reporting on these expenditures to the public. Can an average taxpayer easily find out, let’s say, how the CCDC is handling its travel expenses?
GOLDEN: No, it’s extremely difficult for an average citizen to even know where to look. Each agency has different places within their website, if they even post it at all. That includes their budget for travel and business expenses as well as the actual policy. But what we have done at the Taxpayers Association is we did a request of all of these agencies to retrieve all of their policies as well as the last 20 travel and business expense reimbursements that were submitted from – we actually submitted a while ago, so it was November to the end of December. That tended to be the range, and we posted them all on our website. And so now the general public is able to access them with ease.
CAVANAUGH: And what is your recommendation for that kind of disclosure to the public?
GOLDEN: It absolutely should be posted on every single one of the agencies’ websites.
CAVANAUGH: Now did you have in this report like a breakdown of which agencies you thought were doing a good job in handling expense accounts and which you thought were doing a poor job in San Diego?
GOLDEN: You know, we did not put that in there. Really, there’s – Every public agency that we reviewed contained some good components and then others were lacking, so the wide range of travel and business expense policies that are in existence in San Diego County makes it really hard to draw that type of conclusion because there’s good things in every policy and then there’s loopholes in every policy as well.
CAVANAUGH: I think one of the most surprising things about the report is the number of agencies that allow people to okay their own expenses. Tell us a little bit about that.
GOLDEN: Yes. The Airport Authority and the convention center were the only ones that we found within their policy that specifically outlined that the person that is receiving the reimbursement could not approve their own expenses. All the other public agencies are silent on the matter or they outline pretty much a chart of who to go to for approving expenses but then when you get to the person highest up, they don’t have anyone to approve their expenses, whereas the Airport Authority and the convention center are able to check against that.
CAVANAUGH: And you also note sort of a wide-ranging disparity in the demand to keep receipts in order to show, you know, to give evidence that such-and-such an expense has been incurred.
GOLDEN: Right. That was another huge inconsistency among public agencies. Some did not require receipts if they were below a certain amount, and that amount ranged from anywhere between $5.00 and $25.00. Other agencies did not require original receipts. Some others did not require itemized receipts. And I’m sure many of the listeners are familiar with the final receipt that you receive at a restaurant that’s not itemized at all because it’s your credit card receipt. So some agencies just accept those as opposed to knowing exactly what was spent by that employee.
CAVANAUGH: Now throughout your report, you compare a lot of the expenses and the policies with what you call an average corporate – what is the term that you use? An average corporate listing?
GOLDEN: It was an average corporation. It was – We retrieved two copies of just your typical corporation and we just kind of compared with each of them and, by far, the typical corporation tended to be pretty restrictive and they didn’t allow for a lot of different components. For instance, they set expenditure limits so you had to comply with the General Services Administration and if you did not want to comply with the General Services Administration and you just wanted to seek reimbursement on your own, you could not seek reimbursement for anything beyond those limits set by the General Services Administration.
CAVANAUGH: Because, you know, the idea is that expense policies must be far more liberal in the private sector than they are in the public but you didn’t always find that to be true.
CAVANAUGH: Now tell us a little bit about the use of, for government agencies in San Diego, the ones you reviewed, private phone calls on their company phones.
GOLDEN: Absolutely. This is – One of the things that we had found is that a lot of the policies, because they’re – many of the agencies are older and so the policies were written a long time ago, that there are antiquated components within many of the policies where they allow for personal phone calls and they allow expenditures for personal phone calls. That was probably put in there before the advent where everyone had cell phones. But, needless to say, there are components within there that allow for maybe up to $10.00 a day for personal phone calls as in the case for SANDAG. The other big one is that some of the agencies allow the use of air phones for business purposes.
CAVANAUGH: During travel.
CAVANAUGH: And which are very, very expensive.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call now. Edward is calling us from downtown. Good morning, Edward, and welcome to These Days.
EDWARD (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Good morning. Thank you, and sorry about my laryngitis here this morning.
EDWARD: I have a question about a larger issue. It’s not so much the relative or minimum or maximum of each day but where they stay. Why can’t places have a policy, agencies have a policy that say you’ll stay at a Holiday Inn type of facility rather than a Ritz-Carlton, or a La Quinta Inn instead of a, you know, Hotel Indigo? Because this came up specifically when the previous superintendent of the San Diego City School Board was slapped down on his meal expenses and he said, well, you can’t expect me to do a talk with a person in a Denny’s. Well, why not? Why not have some policies along those lines that would cut, it would seem to me, a lot of expenses down.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Edward. And what about Edward’s comment?
GOLDEN: Edward, those are fantastic points. And the General Services Administration in terms of their limits on how much you can expend, that would pretty much put you in that same range as a Holiday Inn or a La Quinta. What happens with a lot of the agencies that do not set limits, they end up staying at your Ritz-Carlton. I did compare a couple of the agencies that we looked at and received their last 20 travel and business expenses and I compared them with the General Services Administration guidelines and, by far, lodging was the one where they spent the most amount of money that was well beyond General Services Administration guidelines.
CAVANAUGH: Now from what I understand, you’ve sent your recommendations to each of the agencies that you scrutinized. What has been the response to your recommendations?
GOLDEN: You know, it’s so early on in the process that we haven’t received much response but we know that each agency has received a copy of them. All the agencies that we reviewed received a mailed copy as well, and so we’re positive that they’ve gotten them. They’re well aware that our report was in the making. We were doing numerous requests at the time this was going on, and so I’m sure they’re well aware that it’s out there. Each public agency is different and so they’ll probably take a different stance on our recommendations, which is to be expected. Some agencies have the need to travel much more often than others and so maybe they’ll pick one or two of our recommendations and decide to adopt those instead, so we’re hopeful.
CAVANAUGH: And if our listeners want to see your report where can they go?
GOLDEN: They can go to our website at www.sdcta.org and the entire appendix of our report is also available on our website, which includes every single public agency’s travel and expense reimbursement policies and it also includes the list of the last 20 travel and expense reimbursements.
CAVANAUGH: JoAnne, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
GOLDEN: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with JoAnne Golden. She’s policy manager for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. If you’d like to go online and comment, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, we’ll talk about plans and proposals for public arts along San Diego’s waterfront. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.