Editor’s note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks, like this one, also appear on The Chronicle’s website.
Even if all you do is stare right into your own belly button, you can still wind up thinking about drinking too much Diet Coke out of a hotel minibar in Tel Aviv.
Let’s start close to home, at 618 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor, Mich. That’s where local developer Dan Ketelaar is currently planning a six-story residential project – it will consist of about 180 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
It’s also the former location of Fox Tent & Awning.
Gazing into my navel, I think of Teeter Talk’s history with that business. Back in 2007, I pedaled my bicycle trailer, loaded with a wooden teeter totter, into Fox Tent & Awning. There, Lynda, Don, and Diane measured out and sewed together a custom canvas cover for the totter plus trailer rig. Teeter Talk was ready to leave my back yard. It was ready to travel.
That’s right, travel. Ever wonder how much the U.S. government spends on travel to Ann Arbor? Maybe you never wondered that because you figured the answer is hard to find.
Yet in about 15 minutes, using an online searchable repository of federal travel records available on JunketSleuth.com, here’s what I learned: For a roughly three-year period from 2008 to 2010, at least $847,970 in federal money from 11 different federal agencies was spent on 970 trips to Ann Arbor, Mich. [Google Spreadsheet with summary Ann Arbor JunketSleuth data]
Chris Carey is editor and president of BailoutSleuth.com, which operates JunketSleuth. And Carey lives in Ann Arbor, so it worked out that he was able to join me as a guest on the teeter totter back in mid-October.
Now, the financier of the enterprise, Mark Cuban, is to my knowledge not fascinated with a little college town like ours. So the point of the JunketSleuth enterprise is not to document federal spending on travel to Ann Arbor. JunketSleuth describes itself as an “independent Web-based news site aimed at exposing travel patterns of U.S. government employees.” So JunketSleuth.com is more interested in looking at the travel patterns of people – people like Securities and Exchange Commissioner Kathleen Casey, whose bill at a Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel included (for one day) $24 worth of Coke and Diet Coke.
To summarize, traveling from my belly button to Tel Aviv cost you right around 350 words – a real bargain by Chronicle standards. For readers whose final destination is actually Carey’s complete Talk, thanks for flying with The Chronicle. At your final destination, you’ll find topics like the challenges facing journalists today, how Carey wound up in Ann Arbor, and what he has in common with Chronicle sports columnist John U. Bacon.
For those who are continuing with us here on The Chronicle, I’ve pulled one theme out of his Talk to highlight here: the culture of spending taxpayer money.
Culture of Spending: Diet Coke
On the totter, JunketSleuth’s Chris Carey allowed that the $24 worth of Coke and Diet Coke charged in one day to the Tel Aviv Hilton by Securities and Exchange commissioner Kathleen Casey was not a major scandal.
And after dismounting from the totter, I’ve now had nearly two months to reflect on all that Diet Coke. It made me thirsty – thirsty to know how much Diet Coke $24 will buy from the Tel Aviv Hilton. Two liters? A 12-pack? A pony keg? I actually made a couple of calls, but the result of that high-minded journalistic effort did not yield a definitive answer.
Frankly, I don’t think it’d be completely out of line for the Tel Aviv Hilton to charge guests $3 per can of Diet Coke. That works out to eight cans for $24. Based on my own daily consumption of Diet Coke and other caffeine products, that’s a lot, but not a crazy amount. (Oh, c’mon, it’s really not.)
And I could imagine a scenario where you need to buy the Diet Coke at the price the Hilton charges instead of from a convenience store, because it was between meetings, you were crunched for time and decided to buy a bunch to cover yourself for anticipated future thirst, too.
Though perhaps not a scandal in itself, Carey pointed during his Talk to the mindset that might be suggested by the Diet Coke and other charges accumulated by Ms. Casey. To me, it suggests a mindset and a culture that does not always seek out the least expensive alternative when traveling – maybe because somebody else (taxpayers like you and me) is paying. And there’s likely no specific reward for leaving money unspent in the travel budget. It’s not like we taxpayers are going to ask for it back, are we?
So what Chris Carey and the rest of the JunketSleuth staff are basically doing, on taxpayers’ behalf, is asking for our money back. And it’s good that they are asking. Now, the answer might be: No, you can’t have it, now or in the future, and here’s why. I think it’s okay if the answer is no – if it’s supplemented by a very good story explaining why not.
But the answer isn’t going to be yes, unless somebody at least asks the question. If nobody asks the question, then it’ll always be okay to spend all the money available.
Culture of Spending: Millage Money
Spending all the money available is a mindset that I think is entrenched locally in Ann Arbor every bit as much as it is anywhere else. Whether that’s part of Ann Arbor city culture for travel spending is hard to say. More on that in a minute. But this spend-it-all mindset does surface occasionally at the city council table.
To see this, consider a scenario that clearly doesn’t apply to Ann Arbor. Suppose City A has no garbage collection service. Voters in City A decide to place a tax on themselves that’s sufficient for curbside garbage collection services every other week. Before the vote, it’s discussed by the community that adequate service would be every other week, but that’s not a part of the actual ballot language. Then it turns out that garbage collectors can be hired and trucks can be purchased much cheaper that originally thought. In fact, it can be done so much cheaper that service could be offered once a week instead of once every two weeks.
Question: Does the city return the excess to the taxpayers, or simply decide to provide service at twice the level that everyone had agreed was adequate?
I don’t think that question has an obvious answer. But there’s no doubt it’s a fair question. And it’s easy to concede that it’s a fair question, because we don’t live in City A, right?
Oh, but we actually do. Swap in Ann Arbor’s open space preservation millage (aka greenbelt milage) for City A’s garbage collection tax, and now we have a reasonable analogy.
The city council gave initial consideration at its Nov. 21 meeting to the question of whether to expand the set of properties eligible for preservation under the greenbelt millage. At that meeting, Carsten Hohnke – the council representative to the greenbelt advisory commission – noted that the per-acre cost of preserving land had has dropped to half what it was in 2003, when voters approved the 0.5 mill tax for the next 30 years. Also noted at the meeting was the fact that there are many more organizations working on land preservation efforts than existed back in 2003, when the city of Ann Arbor was in some sense going it alone.
In terms of soda, it’d be like Kathleen Casey finding out that the Diet Coke costs $18 instead of $24. Now what? Leave the $6 unspent? Spend the $6 on additional Diet Coke? Spend it on Coke Zero? Spend it on some nut-based snacks? (As it turns out, JunketSleuth reported that on the same day Casey bought the $24 of Coke products from the Tel Aviv Hilton, she also bought $12 worth of almonds and cashews.) Spend it on something that you know you can’t eat, and just throw it in the garbage?
Of course, garbage collection is a lot different from preserving open space. But we’ve apparently got a situation where the goals that Ann Arbor set out to accomplish with the greenbelt program might be achievable at a lower financial cost than we originally thought. So, do we still spend all the money available? Or do we think about possibly reducing the amount that is levied? Or do we think about asking voters if they’d be willing to approve redirecting some of that preservation millage money on the maintenance of existing city park facilities?
If voters said yes to that redirection, then under the administrative policy of the council enacted on May 16, 2011, the proceeds of the greenbelt millage would “count” as general fund spending on city parks – for the purposes of a different policy requirement that general fund spending on parks not decrease relative to other areas of the budget. And that, in turn, would free up general fund money to be spent on something besides city parks. Like firefighters and police officers, for example.
But we could argue about that. It wouldn’t be crazy to say that if we’re going to vote to redirect open space preservation dollars to city park maintenance, then the desired effect should be to bolster the quality of our park system, not bolster the quality of our public safety services. In any case, we could debate it – if the right questions get asked.
So it was nice to see that first, basic question asked on Nov. 21, at the meeting when the council undertook its initial deliberations on expanding the greenbelt boundaries. It was councilmember Jane Lumm who essentially raised the issue, when she asked, in so many words: Are we just trying to spend all the money? At the Nov. 21 meeting, Marcia Higgins joined Lumm in questioning the greenbelt boundary expansion.
But on that occasion, neither Higgins or Lumm put the question of boundary expansion in the context of specific alternatives – like asking voters to approve a reduction in the 0.5 mill levy or asking voters to approve redirecting a portion of future funds levied under the millage to city park maintenance. This isn’t some novel, creative suggestion I came up with. The idea of making that request of voters was floated at a December 2009 city council budget retreat. And the idea of asking voters for authorization to redirect a portion of greenbelt millage funds was discussed in a bit more detail at a city council budget work session in early 2010. Especially at the work session, it was Higgins who pressed the issue.
It’s conceivable that Higgins and Lumm could press the issue further when councilmembers consider the matter at their second and final vote on the greenbelt boundary expansion – likely to take place at the council’s Dec. 5 meeting. Based on deliberations preceding the initial vote, however, the majority of councilmembers will not be inclined to consider the broader context of the entire city budget in connection with the greenbelt boundary expansion.
And that’s because the city council is out of the habit of asking the question: Are we just going to spend all the available money?
Culture of Spending: Ann Arbor P-Cards
What would the equivalent of JunketSleuth be for local Ann Arbor government? Getting access to one chunk of city data – P-Card transaction data – would not require the kind of extensive Freedom of Information Act requests that JunketSleuth has made in order to compile its online database.
Along with myriad other data sets, information on the city’s P-Card (purchase cards) transactions is available through the city’s Data Catalog. The P-Card data includes records of over 12,000 transactions, some of which are travel-related. The transaction amounts are, according to city policy, limited to dollar amounts under $3,000. The cards are subject to other constraints on use as well. One constraint is that P-Cards cannot be pooled by employees to circumvent the cap.
According to city accounting services manager Karen Lancaster, roughly 100 cards are in circulation. Individual cards can be tailored for daily or monthly limits or by type of merchant. For example, if an employee were issued a P-Card for some specific type of purchase related to their job, then other uses – for travel or food, or computer purchases – could be prohibited as part of the card’s configuration. [.pdf of city policy on P-Cards]
For the year ending June 30, 2010, the city’s auditor contended that the city appeared to be in violation of established administrative policy and financial management procedures or applicable state laws for maintaining documentation of P-Card purchases.
The auditor concluded that the city may have paid for transactions “without ever reviewing the statement or any supporting receipt to authorize the purchase and determine that there was a business purpose for the transaction.” While the city concurred with the auditor’s recommendation for better documentation, it pointed to the control in place at the level of an employee’s supervisor, who is responsible for signing off on a purchase, before it is forwarded to the accounting department. [.pdf of city of Ann Arbor audit report for the year ending June 30, 2010]
The explicit business purpose of the P-Card transactions is not part of the Data Catalog records. Each P-Card record in the Data Catalog currently includes three data fields: date, merchant name, transaction amount. And that presents a barrier to be overcome by a member of the public interested in monitoring travel expenses by looking at P-Card data. You’d need to be able to identify travel expenses through merchant names – which is not impossible, but would be somewhat tedious.
Another barrier to monitoring travel expenses through P-Card data is the sheer number of records – over 12,000 of them. That’s too large a set for some free tools (like Google Documents, in my experience) to process without crashing.
However, both barriers look to be overcome sometime soon.
According to Lancaster, P-Card data is on the city’s work plan for conversion to the city’s A2OpenBook platform – which allows the public to monitor the city’s expenditures and revenues by fund, by vendor and by purpose. That should eliminate the need to deal with 12,000 records all in one go.
Lancaster also indicated in an email to The Chronicle that as part of the move to A2OpenBook, she believes that adding the category of the expense to each P-Card record (materials and supplies, travel, etc.) “is definitely something we can do.”
I’m looking forward to that. It’s a step towards eliminating the need for citizens to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act and is entirely consistent with president Barack Obama’s Jan. 21, 2009 memo on FOIA, which reads in relevant part:
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.
Speaking of “disclosure,” in case anyone was teetering on the edge of their seat: No, I’m not going to disclose the other things I found in my belly button while working on this column. But you’ll find other, more pleasant kinds of disclosures in Chris Carey’s Teeter Talk – and I think it’s definitely worth the trip.