TAMARAC — The city of Tamarac still hasn’t gotten rid of a controversial policy that allows officials to spend $75,000 on travel without recording receipts — leaving taxpayers in the dark and conditions ripe for “fraud, waste and abuse,” Broward County government’s top watchdog said. Friday.
The option to spend the money is still on the books, so Broward’s ethics czar urged city officials to make changes now to “mitigate the risk” in the future.
The lavish travel budget was in the spotlight when the South Florida Sun Sentinel unveiled the spending plans last year. A series of news articles about even more benefits followed, causing the commissioners to stop spending city coffers.
The $75,000 in unregulated taxpayer-paid travel expenses has prompted a review from Broward’s inspector general, who is urging the city to change its codes. The inspector general, whose office is tasked with rooting out corruption in local government, found no abuse of politics among the five members of the city commission, as he spent none of it in the middle of the public outcry last year.
Yet the inspector general castigated the city for its “lack of internal controls” and wrote that the city code, “which established this local travel allowance, lacks any hint of control. In fact, it encourages fraud, waste and abuse.
This is because, in the future, there would be no documentation to show how politicians would use their share of the money and whether they were using it for the intended purpose.
In February 2021, the majority of the city commission voted to give themselves each an annual expense account of $15,000 for local travel, without having to submit proof of how they spent the money and get the staff approval for travel reimbursement within 100 miles of City Hall.
One commissioner even tried to make the benefit retroactive to the previous fall.
Although the benefit of $15,000 – for a total of $75,000 – was an approved item, the Municipal Commission backed down amid a backlash. The city never budgeted the money so it couldn’t be used.
Yet the travel item was never completely removed and the Inspector General noted “there is nothing in place that would prevent him from funding this line item in the future, either by budget modification , or through the budget process for a future financial year”.
The office said there would be potential for abuse “if the city enforces the ordinance in the future.” Without the need for receipts or documents to show how much money commission members spend and what they spend it on, the city and the public would have no idea whether taxpayer funds were spent to perform public duties. members of the commission or for public purposes.
“Therefore, observed the OIG, $75,000 of taxpayers’ money could be used for purposes other than travel.”
The Inspector General’s office suggested the city take immediate action to resolve the issue, including developing a “clearer, objective and comprehensive travel reimbursement policy” or requiring receipts and proof of travel from any member of the commission, or by repealing the section altogether.
City commission spending has been attracting attention since at least 2017.
Next, Tamarac had set an overall budget of $25,000 for travel and related expenses, including food and conference costs.
But city records show the costs went way beyond that. To keep track of commission travel expenses across the country for conferences, which were expected to top $80,000 in 2017, city administrators suggested increasing the budgeted amount.
The five-member commission planned about 30 trips that year, including a former member’s $14,000 trip to Harvard to learn about tax policy, where he flew in an upgraded front-row seat on JetBlue and spent an extra night in a four star hotel. .
Tamarac was unmatched by other South Florida cities for travel that year, surpassing neighbors such as Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale.
The ethical investigation into the town hall of Tamarac lasted about a year.
Tamarac has been criticized by locals for a host of perks that politicians give themselves. They already share an annual out-of-town travel expense reimbursement fund of $55,000.
Each of them also gets their own:
- A salary of about $50,000 and about $60,000 for the mayor.
- Discounts on camp for their children.
- Free use of the municipal swimming pool and gym.
- A pension.
- Health insurance.
- A monthly telephone allowance of $50.
- A monthly car allowance of $700 (no receipts or documents required to get the money for this either.)
- A personal “initiative” account of $25,000 each, from which at least one commissioner has drawn for the decoration of his office.
The Office of Inspector General noted that spending on the $25,000 “initiative” account increased by $19,000 in just one year. The commissioners started with $1,500 each in 2019, then increased it to $6,000 in 2020, before increasing it to $25,000 for the 2021 fiscal year.
Mayor Michelle Gomez, who was the only one to vote against the $75,000 travel budget, said she asked the city manager to repeal it.
“I want to get rid of it,” she said Friday. “There is no purpose to this. We don’t need it in our books.
She said the city commission would discuss the issue on May 11.
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at [email protected] or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash