How many miniature jock straps will $440 buy?
With a quantity discount, it bought the city of Lodi 251 - used as decorations for a sports-themed League of Cities conference dinner the city hosted in September at Wine and Roses Country Inn.
The total bill at Lodi Sporting Goods for the party favors came to $740.
In addition to the tiny supporters, the city bought 40 baby footballs and 40 one-inch golf tees.
The spending didn't stop with the sporting goods.
The city paid another $4,223 for a buffet dinner from Wine and Roses Country Inn & Restaurant and $500 more on local wines for the event, which was attended by about 150 officials from Lodi and other Northern California cities.
Although the dignitaries bought tickets, records show that the city still lost approximately $3,000 on the party.
"It would be wonderful if there were no costs to the city," said former City Clerk Alice Reimche, who planned the dinner, "but you're going into it not knowing what your attendance will be."
Just a month before that banquet, a Lodi police officer whose truck had struck and killed a 4-year-old girl in July 1999 spent three days in Disneyland in August with his wife and child - paid for with $1,700 of city money set aside for city manager conference fees.
City Manager Dixon Flynn said he sent the officer south to conduct some business for him - pick up some information about art in public places in Brea, which is close to Disneyland. But the officer didn't attend a conference there.
Nevertheless, the city reimbursed him $552 for three plane tickets to Orange County, $40 for parking at the Oakland airport, $32 for bus transfers, $871 for three nights at The Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and $207 for six meals.
"You have to understand," said Flynn, who approved the trip. "I had a very distraught employee. I had to get him out of here."
A News-Sentinel review of spending by top city officials showed that the above incidents are but a few of the city's questionable expenditures.
These expenditures range from flowers to gourmet meals to assorted goodies.
Moreover, the review showed a record-keeping system that is difficult, if not impossible, for a layperson to penetrate. Information takes days or weeks to obtain, and sometimes leads only to more questions.
Also, charges are scattered with expenses from a single event sometimes paid for from different accounts.
For example, most of the wine for the League of Cities dinner was purchased with money from a special account set up only for that dinner.
But a receipt from Lodi Avenue Liquors shows that a case of cabernet and some beer totaling $461 for the same event was charged to what's called the "City Council Generic Fund," Flynn said.
Lodi Finance Director Vicky McAthie said this type of expense spreading happens at times and is actually supposed to happen.
For example, if items will serve more than one purpose, they can be charged to one of several accounts, McAthie said.
"It's usually pretty black and white," McAthie said, regarding which account an item should be charged to.
Usually, it's based on where the item was budgeted for that year.
McAthie conceded that the accounting system the city must follow makes it hard even for the city accounting staff to figure out exactly how much money a certain event ended up costing.
This is precisely why Mayor Steve Mann proposed that anything costing more than $100 drawn from the city's $22,000 special-event fund would have to come before the City Council for approval.
Mann proposed the $100 cap at a recent council meeting, but a majority of members would only grant him a $1,000 ceiling on the fund which is also known as the City Council Protocol Account.
"All you need to do is have 10 $100 expenses and that adds up to $1,000," Mann said, "and those events are composed of smaller expenditures."
Indeed, the small change spent on novelties rather than necessities is adding up.
Here are just a few more examples:
- At councilman and former mayor Keith Land's request, former city clerk Alice Reimche, who left office this spring, spent $1,000.72 on Christmas cards for city employees in December.
- Reimche also signed receipt upon receipt from local deli Bella Mozzarella totaling $1,559 in refreshments for City Council meetings and both the current and former mayor's lunches with local citizens. Sandwiches, salad assortments, fruit and cookies, usually costing about $50 per meeting, aren't charged to the council members' individual $5,000 expense accounts. The snacks, instead, are paid for from a $28,000 General Supplies fund that is part of the City Council's Generic Fund. The $92,000 Generic Fund pays for the council members' salaries, benefits and supplies.
- The city spent another $2,637 at Cottage Bakery for coffee cakes and fancy cookies, bagels and cream cheese and dozens of glazed donuts over the past year, some of which were for staff meetings and City Council shirtsleeve sessions. Some of the sweets were for volunteers for different projects, Mann said.
- The city spent more than $1,000 at Avenue Florist, and about $3,500 at Village Flower and Gifts on plants and flowers expressing various departments' sympathy, congratulations and thank yous. And when flowers are necessary, Lodi doesn't always send just one spray. Often, several departments will each send their own, paid for not by the members of the departments, but out of each department's General Supplies budget. When a deputy city clerk had a baby this fiscal year, the City Manager's Office sent a $60 bouquet and the City Council sent another for $30.
- The city spent $1,300 at Port City Wholesale on decorative flowers for things like banquet centerpieces. The 75-foot evergreen garland that decorated the City Hall and the council chambers around the holidays cost the city $295 from this wholesaler. The garland wasn't budgeted anywhere, according to the Lodi finance director, so money to pay for it ended up coming out of the city's Contingency Fund. The contingency fund is a nearly $800,000 account set aside for emergency expenses.
City council members and city staff alike had mixed feelings about these expenditures.
It was common, when questioned about them, for officials to place the blame on other officials.
Flynn said the City Council knew about the Disneyland trip for police officer Valentine Chaban, but some council members say they weren't fully informed.
Mann said he thought Chaban, who returned to duty Monday after several months on leave, was sent south on business.
Initially, Mann said he didn't know anything about Disneyland, but later said he and the entire council were told about the trip. "Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do," Mann said.
He pointed out that the city also paid about $5,000 for the funeral of the girl, Jessica Quenzer, who died in the accident.
But council members Susan Hitchcock and Alan Nakanishi said they knew nothing about the trip.
Hitchcock was reluctant to disapprove of it even now, though, saying she understands that the officer was upset and probably needed to get away.
"Without knowing the details, it's difficult to pass judgment," Hitchcock said. "But as well-intentioned as that may have been, I don't think it should be a taxpayer expense."
Flynn, who feels that the expense was justified, said he keeps a close eye on city spending. He and Mann agree there are corners that could have been cut over the past year, though.
"Some events have been grander than appropriate," Mann said.
But Reimche, the former city clerk who authorized a lot of these expenses, said she saved money in many ways.
"I did have a reputation for showcasing the city in a very positive way, but let me tell you, we did a lot of things to save costs," Reimche said.
For example, at the League of Cities banquet, many volunteers helped clean up, Reimche said.
Reimche herself arranged the flowers in the centerpieces, rather than pay someone to arrange them.
And McAthie pointed out that the city also saved by bringing in its own wine to Wine and Roses Country Inn for that event in September.
At many of the lunch or dinner meetings, business is taking place, Land said.
For instance, the idea for Lodi House, a shelter for homeless women and children, was born at a luncheon with local ministers few months ago. Lodi House is now scheduled to open this fall.
"We're not just sitting there eating," Land said.
Flynn defended Cottage Bakery and Bella Mozzarella snacks as well.
He said he has recently tried to curb spending on such things in his own department, but pointed out that the council members don't necessarily have time to eat dinner between work and council meetings.
Hitchcock said some niceties are necessary, though. She mentioned the $600 the city spent for three fireproof Christmas trees.
"I think the city would look like, 'bah humbug' if they had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree," Hitchcock said.
And Flynn condoned the $1,000 spent on holiday greeting cards. "I think that's fine," Flynn said.
Flynn said he arranged to open the City Council Protocol Account two years ago as a way to consolidate council spending for city functions that would previously have been charged to other departments' budgets.
He said having the protocol account has helped, but there is still some expenditure spreading that needs to be controlled.
At the same time, there are efforts in place to do just that. Proceeds from the city product line on display at the City Hall Annex are eventually supposed to pay for flowers sent on behalf of the city, Flynn said - once more products sell, that is.
But in the meantime, the city will continue to operate as it has been.
And some citizens, like Tom Kohlhepp, a candidate for the State Assembly and owner of Tom's Used Books on School Street, will continue to shake their heads and sigh.
"It's typical," Kohlhepp said. "Oftentimes, politicians will say we have to hold people accountable. But who really needs to be held accountable are government agencies. I think they ought to put the people first."
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