Last week the Savannah Morning News published an article on Sunday that was critical of some of the instances my office submitted travel reimbursements during the past 18 months. I will address several of the issues raised in the article in a moment. But first, I would like to make this assurance to you: Financial accountability has been and remains one of my top priorities. I treat with utmost importance the trust that City Council places upon me to manage taxpayer funds. My early years in public service were in Research and Budget, and the concept of fiscal conservatism and accounting for every dollar spent are bedrocks of my decisionmaking process. I took no greater pride than in presenting to you last year’s $8.4 million surplus even as we were still emerging from the greatest economic recession since World War II. I am cognizant of the fact that this is the public’s money we are managing, and every expenditure – including travel for conferences and training – must be in the interest of improving life for the people of Savannah.
Timely Filing of Expense Receipts
I take responsibility for not filing expense reports in a timely enough manner. When I travel, generally I am traveling alone and am extremely busy. When I return to Savannah, my schedule is even more hectic, with piles of work awaiting my attention. Immediately turning in expense receipts has not always been at the top of my priority list. As a result, I have neglected to turn in expense reports within the five days spelled out in our Travel Policy. I will point out, however, that this is an internal policy and not a City Ordinance. But while is it not the law, it is important that all City employees follow the same set of City policies, including myself. Thus, I pledge to be more vigilant in turning in expense reports within five days of returning. This has allowed me to reevaluate the process of turning my receipts in on time.
No Independent Auditor to Monitor Spending
The article stated that “the city has no independent auditor to monitor spending.” This, of course, is not true. The City contracts annually for an external audit, and it is conducted in accordance with State law. Just last week I sent the Mayor and Aldermen the 2011 year-end audit, which was recently completed by the firm Karp, Ronning & Tindol. I will also add that all of our records, including all travel records, are open to public inspection during any business day.
A similarly related issue is the process that I use in my office to reconcile my travel expenditures. I first turn over all of my receipts and documentations to my executive assistant. She organizes the information and meets with the staff of the Finance Department. Both staffs reconcile the receipts and documentation and reach an amount that I am either owed by the City or that I must return to the City. Once this is determined my assistant communicates this information to me and my travel expenses are promptly settled. I have employed this system since 2007 because it is an internal system of checks and balances that I have assigned and entrusted to competent staff members in my office and the Finance Department to handle.
Use of Van to Transport City Council on Mayors’ Day
For those who attended the Mayors’ Day Conference in Atlanta in January, you will remember that the weather was cold and rainy. The route from the hotel to the restaurant where we had a dinner was up a very steep hill and the dinner was happening late at night in a section of Atlanta not immune to crime. Given these circumstances, the hotel concierge recommended a shuttle service to help facilitate the safe and dry round trip transport of Council members. I do believe the $150 expense was justified.
Reimbursement of $6 for Post-It Notes
The article stated that my reimbursement of $6 for Post- It notes was not allowed because such expenses are covered by the per diem. This is not true. There was never a charge for Post It Notes made by me. The itemized invoice does show “Post It. No. #####”. My assistant called the clerk in the Gift Shop where the purchase was made and was told today that this is an SKU code for a beverage or other snack.
Acceptance of a Per Diem and then Billing the City for Meals
The cost of food was not reimbursed twice for the same expense, so this is not true. I have dietary restrictions due to a diagnosed medical condition. As an Assistant City Manager, the former City Manager and Finance Director worked out a procedure with my assistant for me to get reimbursed for the difference above the per diem amount so I could meet my special dietary needs while traveling on City business. For example, if my per diem for a trip totaled $140 ($35 per day x 4 days) and the actual cost for meals was $200, I would be reimbursed the $60 difference. Conversely, if the actual cost for meals totaled $100 then I would return $40 to the City.
When I travelled to China in September 2010 as a member of the coastal regional delegation I was advanced $1,000 including $385 for per diem. I returned $898 including all of the $385 per diem because all of our meals were provided by our hosts during this trip and my only expense was for parking at the Airport here in Savannah. So it is not my practice to keep funds advanced by the City that were not used for the intended purpose.
$100 Entry Fee for Golf Tournament
The article mentioned that there was no record of my reimbursing the City for a $100 entry fee into a golf tournament. This is not true. The Finance Department has checked, and did find that the City deposited the $100 reimbursement check from me. It appears on the cash receipts deposited in the General Ledger on May 16, 2012.
It has been and is a practice for the City Manager and senior staff to rent a vehicle when they are attending out of town conferences. While I do not always rent a vehicle, I will sometimes do so if there is something in particular that I would like to investigate about the community that I am visiting. Such is the case when I travelled to the NFBPA conference in Virginia Beach. I took the time to visit the cruise ship terminal area in Norfolk, rode through a redevelopment project and attempted to locate a community market but ran out of time before I had to return to the conference. It was also my intention to sit in on the public presentation of an economic development strategic plan to the Norfolk City Council; however, my conference sessions did not allow me to return to Norfolk.
Also the initial request to the car rental agency was for a mini SUV. When I picked up the vehicle and drove it out of the terminal before reaching the interstate, I had to return the vehicle because it was not operating properly. I was given another vehicle and I was told that a 10% discount would be taken off because of the inconvenience.
I hold the designation of Credentialed Manager by the International City/County Association which means that I meet the criteria of years of experience and knowledge assessments. I received my CM status in 2003 and in order for me to retain my credentialed status I must certify every year that I have received a minimum of 40 hours of professional development. My employment agreement with the current City Council provides for professional development.
Like any Chief Executive Officer for an organization of this size, work sometimes takes me on the road. I do not like being away from my home and family, but it is unavoidable. While away I have always been accessible to the Mayor and Aldermen and City staff. The ideas I am introduced to and the skills I learn help me become a better City Manager. Seeing programs being implemented first-hand in other communities gives me a better sense about whether they can be replicated in Savannah. And sometimes it is imperative for the City Manager to travel to Atlanta or Washington to make a request for funding in person.
Like members of City Council, as the City Manager I do on occasion hold lunch and dinner meetings with elected and appointed officials while representing Savannah’s interests. Networking is a very important aspect of the City Manager’s job and it is through networking not only throughout our City and outside of the City that I am able to bring ideas and programs to the City organization.
And as I mentioned before, I do pledge to improve the timeliness of expense reporting. But I would challenge any one who asserts that any City-funded expense I have made has not been for the purpose of performing my duties as City Manager of this city, representing the City in meetings on all levels, bringing back new ideas and initiatives to advance the priorities of the City Council and to lead our organization to a higher level of City services for our community. Rochelle D. Small-Toney City Manager City of Savannah, Georgia