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Skala spends less than city allowances for travel expenses

Sunday, March 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Third Ward incumbent candidate Karl Skala is taking flak for trips financed by the City Council's travel budget.

Skala has flown, driven and taken trains 16,000 miles round trip to attend conferences, summits, expos and training sessions throughout the United States. He said the trips are intended to improve his ability to help govern the city and represent constituents.

Per Diem

City Council members have a budget for daily meals when they travel. It is broken down into $25 dollars for dinner, $10 for lunch and $7 for breakfast.

Before 2008, the per diem allowance for meals was $20 for dinner, $8 for lunch and $7 for breakfast.

Though the per diem guidelines are suggested, council members are allowed to have larger meals reimbursed if they provide receipts and the budget supports it.


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"It's critically important," Skala said. "If we just rely on homegrown solutions, we are cutting ourselves short."

Gary Kespohl, Skala's challenger on the April 6 ballot, says Skala's spending is a misuse of taxpayer dollars. In an ad for Kespohl's campaign, the voice-over states in an incredulous tone that Skala spent $80 of taxpayer money on a meal while the city, it says, is short 65 police officers.

The city has budgeted money for council travel since before Mayor Darwin Hindman's 15-year career on the council. In 2008, the city increased the travel budget to $40,500 from $32,500. The money is allocated evenly among ward representatives, with the mayor receiving a larger share. If some members travel more than others, the council can tweak the allocations as the fiscal year unfolds.

"It's a huge benefit to go to these national meetings," Hindman said, adding that the conferences give council members knowledge and ideas that most new members don't have.

The conference sessions cover a wide variety of topics, including:

  • effective budgeting
  • time management
  • relationships between council members and the city manager
  • relationships between council members and boards and commissions

At the last Smart Growth conference in Seattle, Skala said, he learned about food initiatives that the city could use. In a recent video, Kespohl claimed Skala was learning about chickens at the conferences. Urban hen initiatives were not discussed at any conferences, according to program guides and Skala.

"Local food initiatives, beyond the chicken issue, involve trying to bring the farmers together with grocery stores, distributors and keep the local dollars here," Skala said.

Skala is scheduled to give a report on what he learned at the Seattle conference to the rest of the council on April 5.

Specifically, Skala said, the conferences have helped him make better decisions concerning the budget. He recalled how the first conference changed the way he approached the budget.

"Previous to going to one of these meetings," Skala said, "I had the idea to do across-the-board budget cuts instead of targeting individual departments. I learned that that wouldn't have been the best decision. Those sessions helped me out a lot in terms of getting the proper perspective to approach budgetary problems."

Kespohl's ads target "gourmet meals" paid for by the city. Skala, though, said that he doesn't "think it's unreasonable to put a good meal at the end of the day on the reimbursement list" after attending long conference sessions.

Skala also said he and fellow council members are now restricting themselves to the total daily food allowance of $42: $25 for dinner, $10 for lunch and $7 for breakfast. Remaining within the allowance means they are not required to present receipts.

According to invoices and receipts, the total cost for Skala's "gourmet meals" is less than if he had stuck to the stated meal allowances.

On average, Skala's meals during his 52 days of travel over his three-year career on the council cost $24.85 per day, totaling up to $1,292.13. The allowance would have cost $1,946.

The total cost of all of Skala's travel is $17,524.75.

Here's the breakdown for every trip Skala has taken at city expense, starting with the most recent:

Feb. 3 to 7, 2010

9th Annual Smart Growth Conference, Seattle; $1,586.20

Lodging: $735.20

Meals: $148

  • $35 for first day; $32 for second, third and fourth days; $17 for fifth day. The city's daily allowances would have totaled $210. 

Transportation: $343

Registration: $309

Taxi Fares: $44

Parking: $7

Nov. 9 to 15, 2009

National League of Cities Annual Conference, San Antonio; $2,515.94

Lodging: $1,120.80

Meals: $214

  • $42 per day for four days, $32 for one day, $7 per day for remaining two days. The city's daily allowances would have totaled $294.

Transportation: $356.14

Conference Registration: $365

Extra Conference Classes: $420

  • "Understanding and Effectively Using the New Media": $120
  • "City Leaders Who Make a Difference": $120
  • "Effective Councils and Boards: Avoiding the Board Trap": $180

Airline Baggage Fees: $40

Nov. 7, 2009

8th Annual Statewide Environmental Summit, Fulton; $52.50

Transportation: $27.50

  • Personal vehicle, 50 miles at 55 cents per mile

Registration: $25

Sept. 9 to 12, 2009

National League of Cities Leadership Training Institute, Louisville, Ky.; $1,475.33.

Lodging: $479.61

Meals: $42

  • $35 for first day, $7 for second day, $0 for final two days. The city's daily allowances would have totaled $168.

Transportation: $203.72

Registration: $695

Airport Parking: $55

Jan. 21 to 25, 2009

8th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth, Albuquerque, N.M.; $1,353.01.

Lodging: $446.48

Meals: $194.03

  • $61.77 (includes duck breast) for first day, $25 for second day, $34.56 for third day, $55.70 (includes filet) for fourth day, $17 for final day. The city allowance for all days would have totaled $210.

Transportation: $339.50

Registration: $309

Airline Baggage Fees: $30

Telephone Calls: $25

Tips, not for meals: $9

Nov. 10 to 16, 2008

National League of Cities Congress of Cities and Exposition, Orlando, Fla.; $2,945.13

Lodging: $1,383.78

Meals: $249.97

  • $70.60 (includes red snapper) for the second day, $14.01 for the fourth day, $61.14 for the fifth day, $81.54 (includes surf and turf) for the sixth day, $22.68 for the seventh day, $0 for first and third days. The city would have allowed for all days a total of $294.

Transportation: $406.38

Registration: $905

  • Congress: $500
  • Exposition: $405

Sept. 10 to 13, 2008

National League of Cities Training Seminar, Welches, Ore.; $1,876.67

Lodging: $529.97

Meals: $83

  • $45 (includes seafood dish) for the first day, $38 the fourth day, $0 for other two days. The city would have allowed for all days a total of $168.

Transportation: $468.70

Registration: $795

Aug. 22, 2008

Mid-MO Economic Summit, Jefferson City; $35

Registration: $35

April 26 to 30, 2008

National League of Cities Training Seminar, Charleston, S.C.; $1,996.74

Lodging: $922.34

Meals: $169.84

  • $47.11 (includes seafood dish) for first day, $41.61 for the second day, $36.12 (includes lamb) for the third day, $35 for the fourth day, $10 for the fifth day. The city for all days would have allowed a total of $210.

Transportation: $399.56

Registration: $395

Taxi Fares: $70

Parking: $40

Nov. 13 to 18, 2007

National League of Cities Conference and Exposition, New Orleans; $2,291.67.

Lodging: $1,072.85

Meals: $156.29

  • $50.21 (includes oysters on the half shell) for the first day, $10 the second day, $7 the third day, $68.46 (includes filet mignon) the fourth day, $7 the fifth day, $13.62 the sixth day. The city for all days would have allowed a total of $252.

Transportation: $369.53

Registration: $570

Taxi Fares: $66

Parking: $48

Tips, not for meals: $9

Sept. 26 to 29, 2007

National League of Cities 15th Annual Leadership Summit, Chicago; $1,242.54

Lodging: $420

Meals*: $35

  • $28 the first day, $7 the second day, $0 the last two days. The city for all days would have allowed a total of $140.

Transportation: $169.54

Registration: $595

Taxi Fares: $23

*The council allowance for meals was still $35 when Skala traveled to Chicago. The guidelines split it into $20 for dinner, $8 for lunch and $7 for breakfast.

June 29, 2007

Mid-Missouri Economic Summit, Jefferson City; $67.01

Transportation: $32.01

  • Personal vehicle, 66 miles at $48.5 cents per mile

Registration: $35

June 14 to 15, 2007

Missouri Municipal League Newly Elected Officials Conference, Jefferson City; $122.01

Transportation: $32.01

  • Personal vehicle, 66 miles at 48.5 cents per mile

Registration: $90


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Comments

Michael Sleadd March 28, 2010 | 9:16 a.m.

Excellent reporting Patrick. Kespohl and his band have thrown a lot of mud in this race. They've not only attempted to soil a respected member of our council, but also a great city in the process. His politics are an attack on the intelligence of the residents of the 3rd Ward and the entire city. I have confidence that Columbians will make the right decision on election day, and tell Kespohl and company that we don't want them representing us.

(Report Comment)
James Downey March 28, 2010 | 10:37 a.m.

Agreed - this is an example of real reporting, providing actual information, context, and then letting the reader come to their own conclusion.

Not that the conclusion was hard to draw previously, concerning this non-issue. Anyone who has ever had to travel for work, and particularly those who have had to attend any kind of professional conference, understands quite well what is involved: limited dining options, the need to attend meals with clients/other conference attendees in order to network, et cetera. The charges submitted for reimbursement by Karl Skala are entirely reasonable and of value to our City. I want my council rep to continue to improve themselves and to help our city by being involved in these sorts of training and networking opportunities. And since I don't expect someone who isn't wealthy to have to shoulder the burden of such service to our community - on top of volunteering their time in what amounts to an almost full-time job - I'm perfectly happy to have a small amount of tax money pay for it.

Jim D.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro March 28, 2010 | 12:59 p.m.

("Third Ward incumbent candidate Karl Skala is taking flak for trips financed by the City Council's travel budget.")

It is Gary Kespohl who should be taking flak for the unfair mudslinging and displaced muckraking he has endorsed to defame Mr. Skala.
I am both concerned and outraged at how the Kespohl's of this campaign, and their "big money," are able to perpetuate accusations with such ease of sleaze.

(Report Comment)
Maria Oropallo March 28, 2010 | 3:16 p.m.

I would be more concerned about a candidate who claims he/she WON'T travel to conferences than how much a Councilmember paid for a steak. That "I will not go on trips" kind of thinking shows an unwillingness to listen to ideas, consider other options or learn new processes.

But then if one gets their marching orders from the Chamber of Commerce only, one wouldn't need to travel, nor listen, consider or learn.

BTW - excellent reporting by the Missourian. Researching and putting facts first before the readership instead of merely repeating campaign literature is exactly what is needed in these last few days before the election.

(Report Comment)
Dale Jones March 29, 2010 | 1:12 p.m.

The amount of money spend by Mr. Skala in very difficult economical times for the City seems unreasonable. If Mr. Skala got the idea to turn Columbia into a "Chicken City" and didn't want to discuss safety camera's for downtown Columbia, I don't want to pay for my City Council members to go to this type of conventions and etc. What a waste!! Many of the larger cities have safety camera's, but this City Council thinks they are smarter than large successful cities. We need new City Council members and a new City Manager. We are repeatly losing ground as one of the cities to live in.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 29, 2010 | 2:16 p.m.

"Chicken City" wasn't Skala's idea, and it is a very minor issue. I can predict wqith confidence you have yet to see a chicken anywhere in the city. For the few people that want them, however, it means a lot.

His travel expenses are a drop in the bucket. If he had taken none of those trips, it wouldn't have made the least bit of difference to the city budget, and he would be significantly less informed.

Kespohl's followers make him look very petty by engaging in these attacks. Whatever happened to debating the issues?

DK

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro March 31, 2010 | 12:27 a.m.

L. Dale Jones:
There are proper ways to address city-approved expenditures, proper ways to finance private area surveillance cameras and the chicken ordinance can be reviewed, rescinded or modified in, let's say a year?
What's your real problem?

(Report Comment)

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