Hartford Cuts Employee Travel, But Thousands Spent On Hotels, Meals
By JENNA CARLESSO
April 26, 2012
HARTFORD —— The city cut its budget for travel expenses in half this fiscal year, but department heads and other employees still spent thousands on airfare, hotel stays and dining as city leaders work to close a $56.2 million deficit.
The city budgeted $240,000 for travel last year. It budgeted $120,000 this fiscal year, which ends in a couple of months. The Courant reviewed records of employee purchasing cards for the first 10 months of fiscal 2011-12.
Among the findings:
David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer, spent more than $12,200 during the past 10 months for travel, including airfare and lodging.
Mayor Pedro Segarra spent about $4,200; Christina Kishimoto, the superintendent of schools, spent nearly $3,100; and Saundra Kee Borges, the city's corporation counsel, spent about $3,300, according to records of employee purchasing cards.
Jose Colon-Rivas, the city's director of families, children, youth and recreation, spent $11,361 in airfare and hotel stays. But he said Tuesday that those expenses were reimbursed through grants.
Panagore said department heads are allowed to may charge travel expenses for their employees in addition to themselves.
Among other travel-related expenses:
In July, Maureen Colman, the schools' director of finance, made two $757 charges at the Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. The expense was listed as a four-night hotel reservation for one person for a conference. Colman could not be reached for comment.
Also for the school system, three charges to the Marriott Long Wharf hotel in Boston — for $971, $691 and $488 — were listed as accommodations for the executive director of professional learning, the interim chief academic officer and the assistant superintendent, who were attending a conference.
The schools' travel budget is separate from the city government budget, Panagore said.
In February, Colon-Rivas made three $2,000 charges and a $1,400 charge to the Hotel Palomar in Los Angeles. He said those charges were reimbursed through funding from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Panagore charged a stay at the Nine Zero hotel in Boston for $646 last month, and he and Segarra spent a combined $1,750 at the Marriott hotel in Mystic in October. Panagore also spent $1,500 at the Mystic Marriott in July.
He described the Mystic trips as two retreats for the mayor's cabinet. The Nine Zero stay was for a housing employee who was caught in Boston during the October snowstorm, he said.
Panagore said his charges, in some cases, are travel expenses for employees in the chief operating officer's and development director's offices — not just for him. He had until recently been serving as development director in addition to his responsibilities as chief operating officer.
Panagore conceded that at times, employees could have made less expensive accommodations. But in some cases, he said, it is important to stay at a higher-priced hotel if a conference is being held there.
"Can we always do better on these things? Yes," he said. "It's a balancing act. We're trying to [continue] our activities, but be attentive to the cost. By and large we've limited — and keep cutting down on — the number of employees that go to conferences."
Charges for restaurant meals also figure prominently in the expense records. The records usually don't show how many people were served for any given restaurant charge.
Segarra spent about $1,500 dining out during the last 10 months, including individual charges of $406.25 and $106 at Salute restaurant in Hartford in October and February, respectively, $94.25 at Morton's of Hartford in December and $119.14 at Vito's by the Park in January, according to the documents.
Panagore charged $2,724 to his city purchasing card for dining out during the same timeframe. The amount includes one-time charges of $182 and $213 to Max Bibo's in Hartford, $243.98 to the Oyster Club in Mystic, $188 to Salute, $139.11 to Firebox in Hartford, $156.87 to Feng Asian Bistro in Hartford and $119.40 to Zinc Restaurant in New Haven.
Kishimoto has charged more than $2,300 to her city purchasing card for dining since July, with individual charges of $733.46 to Hot Tomatoes in Hartford in November, $270.99 to the U.S.S Chowder Pot in Hartford in July, $328.07 to Lolli's Castagnola's in July, $138.60 to Vito's by the Park in October and $140 to Max Bibo's in December, according to documents.
Kishimoto could not be reached for comment.
Some of the charges, such as the Hot Tomatoes purchase, reflected a group dinner — in this case, 11 people — according to the documents. Panagore said many of the dining charges on his card cover the expenses of business dinners for multiple people or catering for staff meetings or conferences.
Other charges, such as a $150 purchase at Coach, a luxury handbag store, in September by Kinsella Magnet School Principal Pamela Totten-Alvarado, have not been explained. Totten-Alvarado's city purchasing card was revoked late last year after finance officials completed a review of her purchases and flagged multiple items, according to a source familiar with the review.
Panagore said city officials are working to restrict the use of purchasing cards to department heads and restrict purchases for some to functional items only, such as equipment for public works employees. He said officials are also exploring the possibility of limiting geographically where employees can make purchases, to keep more business inside the city.
Michael McGarry, head of the city's Republican town committee and a former city council member, said the travel is justified as long as employees learn something and apply it on the job. But, he said, employees should be looking to save money wherever possible and should be accountable for what they spend.
"You meet people and you get ideas during those trips, so they can be very worthwhile," he said. "But generally they should be cognizant of the tough times, and get the least expensive accommodations as possible. As an example to the rest of government, they should look carefully at whatever charges come their way. If they're going to reduce the size and scope of government and have employees take days off [unpaid] — they should look very carefully at what they spend."
Edwin Vargas, a city resident who unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Segarra and is exploring a run for state representative, said employees shouldn't stop traveling, but should keep expenses to a minimum.
"Travel is important when you're trying to attract business investment and when you're trying to seek out the best [job] candidates," he said. "I do, however, believe that with an over $50 million deficit looming, everything should be done to reduce those costs to a bare minimum. During a crisis, an example should be set of being a frugal city government."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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