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How much do Council members spend on travel?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 by Jack Craver

Late last Wednesday, as City Council neared the end of its wrangling over the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget, Council Member Ellen Troxclair made what she framed as a modest request of her colleagues.

The budget presented by staff included a $6,000 increase in the office budget of every Council member and a $10,000 increase to the mayor’s office budget. Why not allocate the money instead to pay for bringing more parks accessible to the disabled, she suggested.

Troxclair referred to the $70,000 increase as it had been presented by staff: as an increase in Council members’ “travel” budgets.

“I do not need an extra $6,000 for my travel budget,” she said.

That motion came after Council shot down a Troxclair proposal to allocate $1.2 million of funds left in the budget to property tax relief.

Mayor Steve Adler said he opposed such a move, saying that he thought it was important for himself and his colleagues to attend conferences and other events where they could discuss policy with experts and elected officials in other cities. Adler noted that his own wealth allowed him to pay for such trips out of his own pocket, but that the city would not always have a mayor who would be able to do that.

Other Council members also objected, pointing out that the $6,000 increase was not necessarily reserved for travel. It was just a part of each Council member’s overall office budget, which they have wide discretion to spend on official uses, including staff, office expenses, district events and Council-related trips.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that, like his predecessor, Council Member Don Zimmerman, he uses part of his office budget to rent and staff an additional office in his northwestern district.

Council Member Delia Garza said she uses much of her budget for constituent services, including setting up town hall meetings. She noted that she often hires an interpreter to translate into Spanish.

“This is not me wanting to travel more, this is me wanting to provide better constituent services,” Garza said.

Many others noted that they have contributed large amounts of their budgets to projects in their districts, notably parks or museums.

In the end, only Council members Alison Alter and Ora Houston voted to support Troxclair’s motion. Troxclair later tweeted that Council “votes to increase their own travel budgets by $70k instead of spending that money in parks for disability improvements.”

In fact, if the past year is any indication, very few Council members plan to use those funds on travel. According to a breakdown of Council office budgets provided to the Austin Monitor, only one Council member spent more than $6,000 on travel last year and only half of Council members, along with the mayor, spent more than $1,000.

Leading the pack on travel expenses was Council Member Pio Renteria ($10,586), followed by Houston ($4,790) and Troxclair ($4,198). In fourth and fifth places were Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo ($2,634) and Council Member Greg Casar ($1,132), respectively.

The mayor’s office reported $2,399 on travel; it’s unclear how much the travel that Adler covered on his own cost.

Council members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool spent nothing on travel. Nor did either occupant of the District 6 office – Flannigan and his predecessor, Zimmerman.

By far the biggest chunk of the roughly $450,000 each Council office receives goes to wages and benefits for staff. After the mayor, who spent $432,471, Kitchen spent the most on full-time salary, at $277,508 last year, while Houston spent the least, at $181,085. Houston was the only Council member who spent under $200,000 on full-time wages, but she spent over $15,000 on part-time wages, second only to Troxclair ($25,530). Most Council offices reported less than $1,000 of part-time pay.

The second greatest expense is health insurance, which accounted for between $55,000 and $70,000 of every Council member’s budget.

Houston was the only Council member who spent less than $500 on “subscriptions,” while Adler and Pool spent the most, at $2,455 and $1,991, respectively.

Troxclair spent the most on refreshments, at $2,052, followed by Adler ($1,900) and Houston ($1,865). Pool and Casar did not report any spending on food or ice.

At the end of the 2017 fiscal year, only three Council members – Flannigan, Casar and Kitchen – had $0 left over. The others had a total of $88,150 left over. About half of that came from Tovo, who had more than $44,000 left over.

How they spend that surplus money is up to them. Some plan to carry it over to the next fiscal year for basic expenses, while others are dedicating money to initiatives in their districts.

Tovo, who in the past has donated some of her budget to funding a public restroom downtown, said she is hoping to use another chunk of it to help the Homeless Outreach Street Team print IDs, while Houston reported giving nearly $15,000 for “bird mitigation” at the Alamo Recreation Center.

Photo by John Flynn.

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