Patterson city travel expenses soar

 
By PRESTON GILL
Elected officials and employees spent more than $100,000 — double the amount budgeted — on travel in the 2012-13 fiscal year and are on track to spend $164,000 this fiscal year, again doubling the budget, city documents state.
Three City Council members, Joe Russo, John Rentrop and Sandra Turner, said such budget-busting without council consent needs to stop.
 “When expenditures exceed what the council has approved and budgeted, it should come to the council with an explanation of why and where the money is going,” Russo said.
The city charter does not allow city expenditures to exceed budgeted appropriations and any authorizations to do so are void and illegal. Such action is cause for removal of the employee making the authorization and that person could be held personally accountable to the city for reimbursement, according to the charter.
The city budgeted $44,520 for travel expenses for the last fiscal year, but spent $102,340, nearly $58,000 over budget, and spent $39,000 on training, $15,000 over budget, according to the June monthly financial report. 
Two months into the new fiscal year the city has spent $27,446 of its $71,956 budgeted for travel, the August monthly financial report shows. At that rate travel expenditures and employee expenses will bust the budget by $92,000. The city spent $6,126 of its $37,421 budgeted training expenditures through the first two months of the fiscal year.
The three council members said they were not aware the travel and employee expense budget was as high as it is. They said they will keep an eye on expenditures and make sure the budget is not exceeded.
Besides travel in and out of state, the expenditures include employee expenses locally, in many instances purchases at restaurants in Patterson and Morgan City on five city-issued credit cards.
Allen Taylor of Kolder, Champagne, Slaven & Company handles the city’s annual independent audit. The audit currently being prepared will note the city needs an employee expense policy requiring documentation of expenses and show how it is city business and not personal use, he said. 
Mayor Rodney Grogan said he will begin expecting documentation and itemized receipts on credit card purchases, especially on meals.
Grogan said the city benefits from the travel he and other city representatives make. A recently enacted city ordinance requiring developers to install sidewalks and below surface drainage in new subdivisions are examples of ideas that came from trips out of state, he said.
Councilman Charles Sawyer called Grogan a progressive mayor who believes in training his personnel.
Grogan said cross training of staff makes city government more efficient and not reliant on a single person and is good for the morale of city employees.
City documents disclose airline tickets and hotel rooms for Grogan, Police Chief Patrick LaSalle, some of the department heads, some council members, and others to conventions and seminars across the country, including Las Vegas, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas and other places. Most administrative department trips included the mayor. Some trips had as many as six people.
Grogan said when he travels he must take off from his full-time parish employment and use vacation time or his pay is docked accordingly at nearly $200 a day. 
“We are not Port Allen,” Grogan said referring to city-paid trips and salary increases for Port Allen Mayor Deedy Slaughter. Grogan’s pay is $20,261 annually as it has been for previous mayors.
“We go to conferences and seminars, and learn how people in other cities accomplish things,” Grogan said. He has also brought grants to the city and put the city on the radar of businesses and industry looking to locate in St. Mary Parish, he said.
By comparison, Morgan City spent $4,056 on travel according to its year-end audit. Berwick’s audit did not show any travel or training expenses for its last fiscal year audit. The mayors of both cities said there are no city-issued credit cards for their city.
Grogan said those cities are not fair comparisons on the travel issue because they are situated in a manner that businesses gravitate to them without needing special effort and promotion. 
Russo, Rentrop and Turner each expressed a need to rein in the rapidly rising, record-setting expenditures in travel and training the past three years. 
Councilman Larry Mendoza could not be reached for comment.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, the city paid $27,805 in travel, employee expenses and training. That grew to $42,888 the next fiscal year and $45,999 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 and then more than doubled last fiscal year.
Russo and Rentrop credit the reporting of The Daily Review with initiating the process of getting monthly finance reports presented at council meetings. Both said changes implemented after the paper’s reporting will work for the betterment of the city.
“I really believe from my heart that was a good thing for the city,” Russo said of the articles. “Having the monthly reports will help me make decisions and know what is happening every month.”
Turner and Rentrop said having monthly financial statements will help them keep a closer eye on what is being done. 
 

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