The Columbia Missourian’s story from Sunday, March 28, totally misses three essential points about Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala’s chronic over-spending on taxpayer-funded junkets:
- It assumes all 14 trips taken in less than three years by Karl Skala were “critically important” to Columbia - just because Skala says so. But just because Skala says a trip is “critically important” does not make it so.
- It assumes the trips were taken after careful coordination among Council members and city leaders, and that the travel was initiated by some authority other than Skala’s whims - just because Skala says so. But just because Skala says so does not make it so.
- The Missourian story lets Skala off the hook on his basic wasteful premise - that if he adds more days to his trips, he is free to spend several times more than city workers on individual meals. That kind of thinking is fiscally irresponsible. And just because Skala says differently does not make it so.
The Missourian’s story revealed Skala spent even more money on more trips than my campaign asserts: a jaw-dropping $17,524.75 in less than three years. That is far more than any other Columbia Council member in memory – a total of 52 days of first-term travel covering 16,000 miles, or a distance about two-thirds of the circumference of Earth.
I start from a different premise: Taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill for Skala’s out of state junkets during the worst economy since the Great Depression, even as Skala votes against key local job creation projects.
The Missourian also failed to answer key questions about Skala’s claim that “he and fellow council members are now restricting themselves to the total daily food allowance of $42.” These questions include:
- Why, if the city has had a travel policy in place for more than a decade, is Skala suddenly agreeing to abide by the same policy that covers all rank-and-file city workers?
- When did the Council discuss adhering to the decade-old travel policy governing city workers and was the discussion held in public since it involves taxpayer money?
- Who among Council members brought up strict adherence to the existing travel policy cover city workers?
- What was the roll-call vote by the Council on following the decade-old travel policy covering city workers?
- How long would Skala have continued buying lavish meals with tax dollars if he hadn’t been caught with his hand on the gourmet menu?
I have never suggested Columbia should not learn from other cities. But there are ways to learn without blowing taxpayer dollars on personal perks and extended junkets. For example, the agendas of the National League of Cities include “webinars,” allowing long-distance sharing of good ideas without spending taxpayer dollars on travel in this tough economy. And unlike Skala, I believe “homegrown solutions” are part of the common-sense values we need on the Columbia City Council.
My common-sense values include decades of experience owning and managing a small business. Skala says he had to go on junkets to learn about “the proper perspective to approach budgetary problems.” Small business owners know it’s pretty simple: you set budget priorities and you stick by those priorities, including reallocating resources to make the most of your dollars.
In the case of the rising Council travel budget, we need a major reallocation. The travel budget has grown more than 20 percent since Karl Skala was elected in 2007, to a total of $40,500. It’s hard to find other segments of Columbia’s economy that have grown in prosperity by some 20 percent since 2007.
I suggest we reallocate $25,000 from the Council’s $40,500 travel budget to pay for the city’s share of downtown safety cameras - matching and leveraging donated funds to give police these important law enforcement tools. That would still leave $15,500 in taxpayer funds for truly important Council travel if needed – and those funds should only be spent if the Council, the Mayor and the City Manager have advance discussions about travel priorities on official business.
That is called setting budget priorities – the same “homegrown solutions” that drew scoffing from Karl Skala, but which Columbia families and businesses must do every day in these tough times.
For myself, I will not take taxpayer-funded trips – not when most Columbia families couldn’t afford to travel like Karl Skala during this week’s spring break. I stand with our families and businesses in calling for the City Council to place the highest priority on fighting crime, enabling job creation and renewing common-sense values in Council decisions.
Gary Kespohl is a candidate for City Council in the Third Ward.