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.
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.
"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:
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
Taxi Fares: $44
Nov. 9 to 15, 2009
Conference Registration: $365
Extra Conference Classes: $420
Airline Baggage Fees: $40
Nov. 7, 2009
8th Annual Statewide Environmental Summit, Fulton; $52.50
Sept. 9 to 12, 2009
Airport Parking: $55
Jan. 21 to 25, 2009
Airline Baggage Fees: $30
Telephone Calls: $25
Tips, not for meals: $9
Nov. 10 to 16, 2008
Sept. 10 to 13, 2008
Aug. 22, 2008
Mid-MO Economic Summit, Jefferson City; $35
April 26 to 30, 2008
Taxi Fares: $70
Nov. 13 to 18, 2007
Taxi Fares: $66
Tips, not for meals: $9
Sept. 26 to 29, 2007
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
June 14 to 15, 2007
Missouri Municipal League Newly Elected Officials Conference, Jefferson City; $122.01