Some Fresno city spending records clear as mud

February 28, 2009 

Every year, the seven members of the Fresno City Council are given at least $50,000 to spend with few strings attached.

Council members say the money is invested in worthy projects and community activities that might otherwise slide through bureaucratic cracks. Over the past six years, records show, council members have spent more than $4 million.

But good luck figuring out what they bought.

The Fresno Bee spent three months trying to dissect how council members have used that money -- known as "discretionary funds" -- since 2003. City officials responded with hundreds of pages of financial data that only an accountant could love.

For example, according to the records, Council Member Larry Westerlund spent nearly $19,000 on "equipment usage" in 2005. The only description or explanation given: "SMCapital-EQU-31-JAN-2005."

Officials said records were provided to The Bee "in the manner which they are kept." But experts say the city's response offers little insight into spending -- something the public has a right to know.

"It should be very transparent where these funds are going each year," said Jeffrey Cummins, assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fresno. "I wouldn't say this is a transparent format for the ordinary citizen."

City Manager Andy Souza said the city's accounting system "tracks all expenditures for internal departmental usage and is used by the finance department to prepare our annual financial statements. All of these reports are available to the public."

He said the record-keeping is designed for internal use, but also said the city strives to be transparent. He added: "We'll work with our accounting staff to make [the reports] more user-friendly when it's requested by the public."

The Bee began asking for information about discretionary fund spending in November. The city's first response arrived about a month later and after several additional e-mails and conversations.

Among the reasons city officials gave for the slow response was the death of an employee who helped track the spending.

That first response included hundreds of lines of accounting codes. Some entries had notes like "small tools" -- suggesting council members were buying picks, shovels and rocks and stacking them in their offices.

The documents didn't seem to make much sense, even to council members.

Former City Council Member Jerry Duncan and other council members said the report seemed to commingle several money sources. And he wasn't familiar with all the codes.

"I just tell them what I want done, and we send them a check for it," Duncan said.

So The Bee refined its request -- asking for a list of projects and spending on salaries and community events.

The latest records include more than 14,000 lines of accounting along with some new spending detail. But most entries -- particularly funds spent on salaries -- offer no specifics.

Said Souza: "We track those accounts consistent with our internal practices, and we've been doing so since the mid-'90s."

He and others say the picture is complex because of how the city accounts for spending on a discretionary fund mainstay -- infrastructure projects. Officials also have several binders tracking council district projects over the past few years, but those reflect a blend of funding sources -- not solely discretionary account spending.

In explaining the records provided to The Bee, city officials said the finance office breaks up infrastructure jobs into a variety of accounting entries. Salaries for employees who fix streets and sidewalks. Specialized services for tree-trimming and the installation and repair of fences and alley gates. Contract construction for left-turn signals.

In the end, the records add up to a tough read for the ordinary person.

One critic is Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. The nonprofit organization works to protect and promote freedom of expression and the public's right to information.

Scheer, who reviewed the records at The Bee's request, said the format "means that no one can really keep track of where this money is going -- much less figure out if it serves the public interest and if the city really benefits sufficiently from it."

Both Scheer and Cummins, the political science professor, said the city should offer a periodic report on such discretionary spending. Souza said no one ever has asked for such a report. Souza also said the accounts are audited by random samplings in the city's annual audit and that the budget system guards against over-spending.

For comparison, The Bee requested a year's worth of data from the city of Sacramento, where council members have a similar discretionary fund. Finance officials e-mailed an accounting within two weeks and even apologized for the delay.

Their response listed the expense and its purpose along with a running balance for each council account.

For example, one council member spent $42.67 on balloons for a library groundbreaking and $1,000 to sponsor a Planned Parenthood educational program. Another spent $2,000 on street landscaping for the Franklin Boulevard Business Association.

Leyne Milstein, the city of Sacramento's finance director, said council members can't use funds for ongoing costs like salaries -- other than interns -- but must invest in community activities that benefit the city.

Fresno council members have more latitude with their accounts, which have existed for years under different names. The accounts were created to give council members a way to address district-level issues -- particularly smaller jobs such as sidewalk and pothole repairs, tree pruning and alley closures.

"The idea at the time was that the individual council members know the district needs better than the administration," Souza said.

But the funds have drawn controversy. In 2002, the grand jury suggested dumping the accounts, then known as capital improvement project or infrastructure funds.

Jurors said residents could be better served, and the money better spent, if it were returned to general city coffers. But the accounts stuck.

Over time, the amount available per council member has ranged from the current $50,000 up to $175,000. Officials trimmed the funds a few years ago to free up money for a program to repair streets, install streetlights and build sidewalks, curbs and gutters in older neighborhoods.

So today, what do we know about council spending?

Not much. Only portions of the city records are easily understood, such as contributions to organizations like the West Fresno Teen Club or the Edison Babe Ruth Baseball Association or fence repairs at Blackstone and Hedges.

The majority of entries -- salaries, for example -- offer no explanation of who was paid or why. Even those categories that give extra detail -- $55.96 for concrete saw blades -- rarely connect the purchase to a specific project.

Council members say the cash is wisely spent even if the records don't always show it.

Mike Dages, who represents southeast Fresno, said he has spent thousands of dollars on projects like monument signs on Huntington Boulevard, a baseball league in southeast Fresno and football uniforms for school children.

Dages also said he often spends $70 or $80 on bounce houses for neighborhood block parties.

Duncan, who just completed two terms on the council, said he often paid for sidewalk and street repairs, and shades for playgrounds.

"What I haven't done is buy uniforms for bands, or hold taco festivals," he said. "That just seems like waste to me."

Former Council Member Brian Calhoun put more than $120,000 toward a splash zone at a new park in northwest Fresno. Council assistants also said he paid to remove mistletoe from trees near the San Joaquin River and to smooth the transition between streets and railroad tracks at several crossings in his district.

Resident Anthony Scheideman, who drives over the Herndon/Golden State crossing on the way to work, was pleased.

"If you were going more than 5 mph ... and holding a cup of coffee, it would be all over you," Scheideman said of the old rocky transition.

In west-central District 1, represented by Council Member Blong Xiong, sidewalks and road repairs top the list. Council Member Henry Perea, who represents central Fresno, said he spent much of his money on alley closures along with a slew of "very small projects" such as repairing sidewalks or gutters disrupted by tree roots.

Some council members spend every dime annually; others roll over cash from year to year. New Council Member Lee Brand, for example, inherited nearly $200,000 in discretionary cash from Duncan.

Calhoun, who left the council in January, cleared out his account with two donations to nonprofits. He said he regarded the cash as "my money to spend."

The reporters can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com, dboyles@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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