By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach city commissioners have created a new policy they can use to boost their take home pay by allowing them to pocket up to $10,000 a year in unspent funds from their individual travel accounts.
The city’s five commissioners each earn about $22,000 for their part-time service. In addition, each gets a $10,000 annual travel allowance.
Before the change took effect October 1, the city had a use-it, or lose-it policy and unspent travel dollars reverted to the city budget. But now commissioners get to keep travel account cash they choose not to spend while on city business.
By a 3-2 vote in July, the commission directed that unspent travel funds be reimbursed to commissioners after the end of the city’s fiscal year on September 30.
Voting for the new reimbursement policy were the three commissioners who traveled the least in 2012-2013 and had leftover funds: Anthony Sanders, Bill Julian and Michele Lazarow.
Mayor Joy Cooper and Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy opposed the change. Both exceeded their $10,000 travel fund last year and even received additional city travel funds – Cooper $7,500 and Lewy $5,000, city records.
The change drew both criticism and support. “I think it’s a betrayal of trust,” community activist Charlotte Greenbarg said of the cash in policy. Referring to the $50,000 total travel allocation for commissioners, she said, “They shouldn’t be traveling that much.”
“I don’t see any problem with it,” said Csaba Kulin, another community watchdog and former unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the commission.
The idea of refunding unused travel expenses to commissioners was suggested at the July 29 meeting by Commissioner Sanders. He noted it has been done with unspent health insurance funds for years.
The new travel reimbursement policy could benefit Sanders the most. In 2012-2013, he spent $1,040 from his $10,000 travel account, according to city records. If he spent the same amount this coming year, he would be reimbursed $8,960, representing a 40% salary hike.
Lazarow spent $2,329 last year. If she spent the same in the coming year, she would be reimbursed $7,671, representing a 34% salary increase.
Julian spent $4,265 last year. If he spent the same this year, he would be reimbursed $5,735, representing a 25% salary hike.
The trio defended the policy change, which was in addition to a 2.5% cost of living increase for commissioners approved at the same July meeting.
“We have to have reasonable income to spend more time at the office and not need another job,” said Sanders, a minister.
“I don’t go on many trips,” said Julian, noting that his commission salary is his only steady income and helps him take care of his elderly mother who lives with him in a rented duplex. The travel reimbursement, he said, would be taxable and “added income.”
Lazarow said the change was a way to adjust commissioners’ pay without increasing their base salary.
Meeting minutes record that Mayor Cooper opposed the change and instead supported allowing for an increase in travel allowances when commissioners exceed their budget and have been selected to represent the city at state and national meetings.
In an interview, Cooper said that if commissioners’ wanted higher pay they should have sought a salary increase.
City records indicate that when Cooper exceeded her $10,000 travel account last year the commission added $5,000, and later another $2,500 to cover additional business travel expenses.
Cooper traveled to attend meetings of the National League of Cities in Boston and Washington D.C., and the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington D.C. City records show she spent all but $439 of her $17,500 travel budget last year.
Lewy, a Democratic candidate for a state House seat, said in an interview that letting commissioners keep their unspent travel cash was a “disincentive” for commissioners to travel on city business because they may view use of funds as “taken from their own pocket.”
Lewy, who had his travel budget increased to $15,000 last year, went to National League of Cities meetings in Boston and Washington D.C. and also took other trips to the nation’s capital in connection with the city’s attempt to obtain U.S. Postal Service property near city hall. He had $1,131 remaining in his $15,000 travel budget at the end of the fiscal year.
The 2.5% cost of living increase raised salaries for four commissioners to $22,378. Mayor Cooper’s base salary, however, is slightly less at $21,727 because she turned down an increase several years ago during tougher economic times, according to the city’s Human Resources department.
Hallandale commissioners this year also get a $12,531 annual stipend to cover their purchase of health insurance. They are the only city officials eligible to have any left over funds refunded to them personally.
Last year, four commissioners got back money from unspent medical insurance funds. Commissioner Lewy received $5,402 and Commissioner Sanders got $1,235. Commissioners Lazarow and Julian, who were elected in November, 2012, received $1,030 and $1,501, respectively.
Mayor Cooper had no excess funds to claim last year. However, she was reimbursed $11,314 – the amount of last year’s stipend – after providing documentation to support her claim that she obtained outside coverage for at least that amount, according to city personnel official Radu Dodea.
Dodea declined to disclose what plans commissioners purchased from outside sources citing federal laws governing the privacy of medical records.