City Council costs rise sharply
Expenses for hotels, meals, seminars have more than doubled since 2003
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs City Council expenses for such things as travel, meals, organization dues and other incidental costs have nearly tripled since 2003.
A review of payments throughout the past four years shows City Council members, primarily former council presidents Ken Brenner and Paul Strong, are spending increasing amounts of city taxpayer dollars to attend various conferences and seminars in Denver and across the Western Slope. City checks also pay for catered meals at City Council retreats and meetings, which doubled in 2006, and for the city credit cards issued to council presidents and president pro-tems.
In 2003, the City Council led by former president Kathy Connell spent $13,875 in city checks. In 2004 and 2005, councils led by Strong spent $16,290 and $26,226, respectively. In 2006, the City Council led by Brenner spent $38,164.
Brenner, Strong and current City Council President Susan Dellinger said this week the expenses allow council members to represent Steamboat Springs on a statewide level and to learn from other resort communities dealing with similar issues – such as growth, affordable housing, and water policy.
“I think us being a (statewide) participant is extremely important,” Dellinger said. “The feeling is that if we’re not members of some of these things – like the Colorado Water Congress, when we have the biggest untapped resource (the Yampa River) – then we’re going to get into a position where people will run over us because we’re not represented.”
But critics say the rising costs show extravagant spending that is not necessary to achieve the representation.
“It’s gotten out of control, these expenses,” Connell said Friday. “It’s just an embarrassment. This is not what should be happening here.”
Individually, Brenner has spent far more than any City Council member in the past three years. From 2004 through 2006, Brenner spent a total of $9,814 in city checks. He was council president during one of those years.
Strong spent $5,430 during the same period, when he was council president for two years. The only other council member with significant spending in that time is Steve Ivancie, who spent $1,476.
From 2003 through 2005, Connell spent $1,023 in city checks. She was council president one of those years.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today received City Council expense records from 2003 through 2006 from the office of City Clerk Julie Jordan.
The largest cause of City Council travel and lodging expenses is participation in the Colorado Municipal League, a nonprofit organization founded in 1923 that lobbies for municipal concerns at the state Capitol in Denver and provides a variety of services to municipal governments. Currently, 265 of Colorado’s 271 communities are CML members.
This year, the CML is monitoring legislative issues including urban renewal, liquor license fees, energy impact grants, and construction contracts – all of which relate to recent City Council decisions in Steamboat.
Brenner is currently one of four members of CML’s Executive Board, serving as its secretary-treasurer. Wednesday, the board will meet with Gov. Bill Ritter for a small luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion. Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, president of Colorado Counties, Inc., also will attend the luncheon.
“Routt County will have two of the six people who will be sitting there talking with the governor,” Brenner said.
City Council presidents have for years been involved in the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, or CAST, which includes 23 municipalities largely dependent on tourism revenue.
Strong said presentations from Aspen officials at a 2005 CAST event in Crested Butte inspired the creation of Steamboat’s Green Team, which the City Council discussed expanding last week.
“The president of City Council is designated to CAST – that started in 1990,” Strong said. “Frequently at our City Council meetings, we’ll talk about what other towns are doing. We don’t always need to be the ones re-inventing the wheel.”
Brenner and Strong both traveled to Denver last week for meetings of the Colorado Water Congress and CAST, respectively.
City Council members also participate in groups including the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado and several local and regional water boards.
“Those are very valuable opportunities,” Brenner said. “I would argue that this is good representation of our community.”
Taking a shot at Connell, Brenner said, “what you have seen in the past is missed opportunities that fostered an isolationist policy.”
Connell did not agree lower City Council costs in previous years correlated to less statewide involvement.
“That’s just poppycock,” she said. “There was nobody more involved than myself, (former council president) Kevin Bennett or Paul Strong : but we were very concerned about using taxpayer dollars.”
Jordan, who has served as city clerk since 1995, said current council members do seem more involved with state organizations.
On Dec. 14, 2005, Brenner spent the night at downtown Denver’s Hotel Monaco, described as a “boutique luxury hotel” where rooms start at $169. The city of Steamboat Springs paid a non-taxed government rate of $119 for the room, which Brenner used while attending a CML Executive Board meeting. He returned the next day.
Including miles, gas and meals, the trip’s total tab was $213.84. Brenner also stayed at the Monaco in March of 2005, for a CML water issues meeting that featured a speech by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs and cost Steamboat $311.20.
Council members took more than 30 city-funded trips around Colorado in 2005, including a three-night stay by former Councilwoman Nancy Kramer at the Vail Marriott in June of that year for a CML conference – Kramer’s total expense for the trip was $387.
“City Council members consider it an honor to be able to represent the city, and to bring back those ideas that make Steamboat Springs progressive,” Brenner said.
On the road
Council members took more than 40 trips in 2006, including stays at the Brown Palace, Adams Mark, Burnsley and Warwick hotels in Denver, the Mountain Chalet in Aspen and the Great Divide Lodge in Breckenridge.
Brenner spent $5,314 in city checks in 2006, as council president; Strong spent $2,553; and Ivancie spent $717, excluding a trip to Washington, D.C. that was primarily reimbursed by grants.
“Ken and Paul really do most of the travel for us, so we can cut the expenses down,” Dellinger said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal to attribute this (rising cost) to them, because they’re the ones who are able to do it. I don’t do a lot of traveling, because I don’t have the time : I think (Brenner and Strong) represent the city very well. People recognize the city through them now.”
The city manager’s office, primarily assistant Lauren Mooney, assigns hotels using government rates and processes City Council expenses. Groups such as CML and CAST sometimes provide “block” reservations at hotels near an event.
After learning of the rising costs this week, Strong said change is needed.
“I am certainly concerned about that – that’s not a good thing,” Strong said. “There’s little council oversight of the expenses, and I think we need to find some way to deal with that.”
At recent meetings, the City Council has chosen representatives to various groups, such as CML, for coming months, but has not discussed expenses for individual trips. Connell said previous councils looked at expenses for each trip taken.
“When we were on council, as many times as possible we stayed with friends or came down the same day we drove back,” she said. “We did not stay in hotels unnecessarily. There’s never been any discussion on this council about trying to save money.”
Dellinger said Thursday she is working with City Manager Alan Lanning to revise how the city handles budget issues, including travel expenses, and compared handling city finances to balancing a household checkbook.
“We’ve got to pay the mortgage,” she said, “but we don’t have to pay for going out to dinner.”
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