Indigestion for some Aspen officials
ASPEN, Colorado ” This week’s revelation that some city employees are using their purchasing cards for meals at restaurants around town has raised eyebrows at Aspen City Hall. It has also raised the question whether those meal purchases ” many at high-end restaurants ” comply with city policy.
City employees last year charged nearly $140,000 on their p-cards for meals, with some of those transactions at restaurants like The Little Nell hotel’s Montagne, Rustique, Lu Lu Wilson and the Palm in Denver.
Explanations for the transactions range from working lunches to feeding volunteer boards and commissions, and conducting business with contractors, consultants and other official city gatherings.
The expenditures have come to light in the midst of the City Council slashing millions of dollars from the 2009 budget in operational cuts, salary freezes and layoffs.
City Councilman Dwayne Romero said food is a discretionary expense and should be used conservatively, especially when he and his colleagues are considering more budget cuts.
“I would prefer that we turn that off in these extreme economic conditions,” he said, adding he does not have a p-card and has not billed the government for any city business he has conducted. “It’s clearly an area that needs to be scrutinized and reduced as we focus on the services we need to provide to the public.”
It doesn’t appear there is a set budget for meals in City Hall. While $24,340 is budgeted for meals in 2009, many transactions will be charged in other line items across various departments like in years past, according to city officials.
In 2007, $24,272 was budgeted for food and in 2008, $24,340 was set aside for meals, according to city officials. However, in 2007 city employees spent $114,519 on dining and food, and in 2008 that figure reached $139,880. Taxpayers footed the bill, based on city finance reports that track commercial card transactions.
Councilman Steve Skadron said it’s reasonable and not uncommon in the business world to have some meal expenses but discretion is critical. He added that based on conversations he has had with some city employees on the issue, he doesn’t think there was any wrongdoing and they were acting appropriately.
But Skadron said he is concerned with the number of employees who posses p-cards, which act as debit cards that draw from the city’s accounts. Out of 314 employees, 270 have p-cards to buy supplies for official government business. That’s roughly 86 percent of the work force.
“That seems, at best, curious and something I want an answer to,” he said.
City Manager Steve Barwick was unavailable for comment Thursday. He has said in the past that p-cards streamline purchasing so that department heads and the city manager aren’t spending an exorbitant amount of time signing off on every expense generated in the course of doing business on a daily basis.
Skadron said he is part of the 14 percent who don’t posses p-cards. He said he has on occasion billed City Hall for travel expenses related to his capacity as a city councilman.
“People with those cards should be extremely conservative in how they use them, especially in these economic times,” he said. “I think holding one of those cards is a privilege.”
City Councilman Jack Johnson said he doesn’t have enough information to have an informed opinion, but at first glance, he said meal expenses during the past two years generally meet the city’s policy on p-card usage.
“The decision to pay for meals with a city of Aspen purchasing card, or any other method of using city funds for legitimate purposes, should be done carefully considering appropriateness and public perception that may result,” the policy states.
The policy also asks employees to test themselves with three questions before making a purchase: whether the meal is necessary for city business; whether the employee can do the business during regular work hours and whether the meal is defensible to the public.
“Meetings should be scheduled outside of the lunch hour whenever possible and should not be used as an opportunity to have ‘lunch on the city,'” according to the policy. “The bottom line is not to purposefully plan lunch or dinner meetings in order to have a free meal.”
Johnson said with a city manager form of government, he relies on Barwick to run the operation as efficiently as possible.
“I don’t want a [City Council] counting pencils or meals,” he said.
Johnson said he has a p-card and has used it in the past to purchase books on historic preservation, and a dinner in Denver with a historic preservation commission member and city employees.