By Mayor Joy Cooper
HALLANDALE BEACH -
Election Season Brings Out News That Is Really Not News!
When does old news become new news? The answer is during election season. Recently, I wrote that election season is in full gear. Actually, November 4th is less than 40 days away. Broward Bulldog a blog has not been around our city for over two years. With the campaign underway ironically BB has shown up at city hall and has even said “it is campaign season” so people “are in my ear". Obliviously it is one candidate’s tactics to once again create negativity and not tell the whole story.
The old news is about an event that took place back in August of 2013 and an action of our city Manager in May. The worst of this story was more of an attack on our city manager who was simply fulfilling commission action taken a year ago during last budget. On a 3-2 vote, a policy was passed to convert unused travel expenses into a benefit for the commissioners. Commissioner Lewy and I both voted no against the policy. It is surprising “no one” was in Bulldog’s ear than.
A few years ago, I requested an ordinance to govern when we could discuss commissioner compensation. It can only be discussed during our budget workshop. A place holder item is listed on the agenda. It is up to the commission to discuss or not to discuss compensation. If there is no discussion, the city commission gets a COLA, the same as all other employees. Last year, without any back up a proposal was brought forward on the vacation stipend reverting to a benefit if it is not used by the commissioner during the year.
Before the change, a city commissioner’s benefits included salary, health insurance, life insurance, expense stipend, Health Retirement Savings Account, disability and 401K contribution. My base salary is $21,727.14, a bit less than the other commissioners at $22,378.93. Since I elected not to take a COLA during the recession. Over all compensation is 37,500 with mine a bit lower. These benefits are the exact same benefits that all other full time general employees receive excluding travel. It should be noted that for some time commissioners received a DB contribution but when all new employees received a 401, I changed my DB to 401. Four of the immediate past commissioners have DB benefits. All new commissioners have 401's, just like general employees.
In addition to the benefits, there is a policy where the commissioners that pay for their own private insurance and/or are covered with another policy will be reimbursed for their portion of the benefit. The cost of the benefit is paid only if there is proof of outside coverage. The reimbursement is the same amount of the city cost, not the private insurance costs. It never exceeds city costs. I am the only sitting comssioner that has private insurance, in the past the only other that I am aware of was Mayor Scavo.
Depending on individuals views on one hand, these benefits could be considered robust and on the other, not enough. I have always viewed them as reasonable. We have done studies in the past and found them to be in the median levels compared to our counter parts statewide.
Travel expenses before the change last year were always charged as an expense to the city account. Commissioners had to pay for their travel and be reimbursed or when possible, staff would book travel ahead of time for hotel and transportation. Expense reports are filed that list all expenses and signed off by both the employee and staff. Over the years there have been changes to the policy.
Originally, there was an account in the city manager's budget for travel up to $50,000. The system was to request through the city manager when we traveled. Just like the IRS, I would define travel as costs associated with traveling for the purpose of conducting business-related activities including expenses that are incurred while traveling away from home specifically for business purposes, such as for a conference, meeting and in our case, lobbying on behalf of the city and educational meeting and conferences.
This policy, I requested to be changed to require that commissioners needed to publicity disclose when they were traveling at a public meeting or educational forum for approval during our planning sessions. It was then changed during a following year’s budget that each commissioner was allotted up to $10,000 each year to travel. This kept the records separate from staff travel. Four years ago, the commission decided to change the policy to not require any discussion or approval. I disagreed with this change and still to this day always announce when I will be traveling for business and when. All of our travel records are on-line.
I, along with former Vice Mayor Lewy urged the commission not to make travel expenses a benefit. The commissioners argued that it was the same as insurance. I argued that travel expenses are much different, in the fact that it is an expense if for conducting city business, not for the individuals. There was an additional concern, that I raised the cap placed on travel. I needed to look at due the increases in Air Travel to Tallahassee and Washington DC. At that time, the Vice Mayor travel and Mayor Travel cap was increased up to $15,000.
I also asked the commission rather than looking at a raise through an expense intended for public use that they consider a direct salary increase it would be more transparent. All of my arguments and Vice Mayor Lewy’s failed. The policy to allocate unused travel budget dollars left in accounts at the end of the year to each of the commissioners passed 3-2, with a budgeted line amount annually at 15,000 for the Mayor and Vice Mayor at $10,000 for each commission seat. In reality, Vice Mayor Lewy and I actively serve as representatives of the city on many boards and lobbied on the city’s behalf many times in DC, so we used the most travel. Other commissioners have used expenses for Tallahassee and for education conferences. The year before, I had to ask that that the CAP be adjusted.
When the Vice Mayor resigned his seat, our City Manager prorated the left over travel budget in the Vice Mayor's account and distributed it to him a benefit as per the city commissions vote. This is why old news, is new news. I find it very disingenuous that some of my collogues are suggesting that our city manager did anything underhanded or they needed to be notified of her actions that were only following their own vote. Our City Manager handles business matters on a daily basis. When employees retire she is the one to sign off.
I also need to make it abundantly clear and I can only speak for myself. I have no intention what so ever to take my unused travel money. I stand by my no vote. To change anything in a democracy takes a majority vote of our commission. I must also let our readers know that even though there was no back up on the item, the commission did make these changes in a public meeting last year. All of our meetings are on-line so, if you want to find out more please visit our we-bsite.
I want to wish all our Jewish friends and neighbors a blessed and peaceful New Year.
Do not forget, Tuesday September 30th at 6 PM, the city commission will be conducting the final public hearing for our fiscal year 2014-2015. We have reduced the tax rate, there are no fee increases and we will be putting $70,000 towards reserves.
Please remember it is hurricane season. Our city is ready, are you? Do you know that once a storm strikes our first responders must retreat until after the storm passes? That means there may likely be a time when you are on your own. Be prepared with water, food and other needs to sustain your health and safety.
As always feel free to reach out to me with your questions, concerns and ideas to make our city a better place. I can be reached at my office number: (954) 457-1318. You can call or text me on my cell at: (954) 632-5700. Or you can visit my web-site at: www.mayorjoycooper.com.