Public records show the Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors spent a $5,440 on travel-related expenses in 2018, while the Sonora City Council has a pending $277 mileage reimbursement for one member’s travel during the same year.
The findings are part of an ongoing examination by The Union Democrat of the travel and business expense records of local public agencies and elected officials, which has included the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority and county Board of Supervisors.
Four out of five TUD directors had travel expenses in 2018. The one who didn’t have any was Ron Ringen.
Funding for the district comes from charges for water service. The district is the largest water purveyor in the county and serves an estimated 44,000 residents.
Records showed that TUD Director Barbara Balen, who serves as board chair, had the most travel-related expenses at $2,460 to attend conferences last year. Her expenses consisted of $425 for registration fees, $771 for lodging, $660 for mileage, $4 for meals, $502 for public transportation, and $98 for parking.
Last year, Balen also served as the president of the board for the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, a lobbying organization that advocates for water agencies located in the Sierra Nevada upstream of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
Director Jim Grinnell, who no longer serves on the board, spent $1,805, including $600 for registration fees, $599 for lodging and $606 for mileage.
Grinnell did not charge for any meals, public transportation, parking, or other travel-related expenses.
Director Ron Kopf had $913 in expenses for conferences — about $614 for mileage and $299 for meals — while Director Bob Rucker expenses were about $262 for public transportation.
All TUD directors, employees and general manager are required to follow the district’s “travel expense limitation policy” that was approved by the board in March 2017.
The board approves the district’s budget each year that provides a set amount of funding for attending conferences, meetings, training, institutes, seminars, regional, and state and local governmental groups and committees.
Any unbudgeted travel requires board approval, according to the policy.
California law also requires elected directors to provide a brief oral or written report to the board at the first meeting after incurring any travel-related expenses, the policy stated.
Receipts are required for each expense and use of public transportation is limited to coach and economy class only.
The maximum reimbursement for meals when traveling is $60 per day, plus 15 percent gratuity, while lodging is limited to $225 or the published rate specific to each conference. Lodging for a single day conference is also limited to one night, except for extenuating circumstances.
Expenses that can’t be charged to TUD ratepayers include alcohol, entertainment such as in-room movies at hotels, costs incurred by any family members traveling with an employee or director on district business, as well as any “unreasonable expenditures,” which are defined as any that exceed the established limits.
Lisa Westbrook, customer and public relations coordinator for TUD, said the district plans to be more proactive in attending conferences related to legislation this year because of some important bills being discussed.
Westbrook said she attended a legislative conference on March 6 hosted by the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento. She did not stay overnight and had to get approval from General Manager Ed Pattison to attend.
There’s also a plan for TUD to send someone to a legislative conference in May hosted by the California Special Districts Association.
Of particular concern for TUD this year is Senate Bill 623, a proposed statewide tax on water that has gained support from Gov. Gavin Newsom. The tax would be an additional 95 cents per month to every Californian’s water bill.
“If a tax is passed on, it’s going to affect our rates as well, so we’re watching that very closely,” Westbrook said. “We try to do things like listen to webinars when it works, but actually hearing and seeing people who are sponsoring a bill and having that one-on-one experience is really invaluable.”
Elected TUD directors also receive a $100 stipend for each board meeting they attend or each day doing work on behalf of the district by request of the board, which is not allowed to exceed six days in any calendar month.
Last year’s compensation for board members totaled $3,600 for Balen, $3,100 for Kopf and Ringen, $3,000 for Grinnell, and $1,800 for Rucker.
Sonora City Council
The Sonora City Council didn’t have any travel or training expenses last year, other than a pending $277 mileage reimbursement for Councilwoman Connie Williams to attend League of California Cities and related board meetings.
Non-travel expenses last year totaled $75.43 to purchase business cards for both Williams and Councilwoman Colette Such, who was the only new member elected in June.
City Administrator Tim Miller said the council’s annual budget for travel and training is $500, and prior councils did not have a practice of using those funds.
Miller said the council members have traveled for League of California Cities meetings or committee meetings more often than others in the past, but there were no reimbursements for meals last year or registration fees.
All city employees and elected officials are bound by the requirements and limitations in the city’s travel policy that was approved by the council in December 2005. Miller said city employees often must travel for training sessions that are required for their job, including firefighters, police officers, mechanics and public works employees.
The travel policy caps the total reimbursement for meals at $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, $20 for dinner, and a maximum of $45 per day. Alcoholic beverages are not covered.
There are also specific times of the day and distances outlined in the policy that employee must leave and return from a meeting, seminar, or training, in order to be eligible for the meal allowance.
For example, an employee attending a meeting in San Francisco that begins 10 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. would have to leave Sonora by 6:30 a.m. and return by 6 p.m. to be entitled to the reimbursement for breakfast and lunch.
The city’s lodging allowance is up to $150 per night, plus taxes, or the group rate for a conference being held at a hotel location. Anything over that amount has to come out of the employee’s or council member’s pocket.
There are also specific requirements on travel time and distance for the city to cover an employee’s overnight lodging.
Expenses must also include all pertinent documentation, such as receipts, a copy of the agenda for the meeting or seminar, lodging rates, meals that are included in registration fees, and proof of insurance if authorized to travel in a private vehicle.
Miller said he would characterize the city’s policy as consistent with his experience at other public agencies during his career, which includes as a planner for the City of Atwater and various other jurisdictions as a private consultant.
“We’re very frugal with money we have,” he said.
Council members do not receive a salary but are paid a monthly stipend of $125. The mayor, who is also a council member, receives $150 a month. The total spent on council member stipends in 2018 was $7,800.
The Union Democrat previously reported that the combined travel and training expenses for all five elected county supervisors and two supervisor-elects exceeded $24,000 last year, according to public records.
Most of the expenses were for lodging and mileage to meetings of government associations.
Meal reimbursements for county supervisors and employees when traveling last year were limited to $10 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $21 for dinner, though only a few charged meals to taxpayers.
Elected county supervisors are also each paid an annual salary of $52,000, in addition to health and retirement benefits.
A review of the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s travel and business expenses found that charges to the agency’s credit card were $44,263 in 2017 and $56,411 in 2018.
The charges by TCEDA CEO Larry Cope in 2017 included $15,863 for business-related trips and $7,092 for meals at local restaurants, mostly with existing businesses, county supervisors and government officials.
Cope’s expenses in 2018 included $18,438 on trips and $3,632 on meals at local restaurants, almost all of which were within the first six months of the year. His salary was $163,625 last year, not including health and retirement benefits.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.