It's on the town: Council retreats cost taxpayers thousands - Tucson Local Media: Import

It's on the town: Council retreats cost taxpayers thousands

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Posted: Monday, February 6, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

February 1, 2006 - Editor's note: This is the second story in a five-part series examining the spending habits of Marana public officials. The EXPLORER reviewed records of the town's travel and training expenses for the last five fiscal years. The newspaper also reviewed bank statements and receipts to see how Marana officials are using their town-issued credit cards to spend taxpayer dollars.

The Marana Town Council regularly spends more than $10,000 for each of its annual retreats - traveling far outside the town limits, eating expensive meals and staying in luxury resort hotels.

This past year's retreat - 80 miles away from Marana - was no exception. Town officials charged thousands of dollars to the town for food and rooms while enjoying a weekend stay at the Esplendor Resort in Rio Rico, where some council members also found time to golf.

Marana's retreats cost taxpayers substantially more than the amount two other governments of comparable size regularly spend on their retreats, according to an EXPLORER analysis of town records.

Marana's finance department does not keep tallies of the costs associated with retreats, though the EXPLORER was able to trace records of checks paid to resorts, charges billed to town credit cards and money town officials were reimbursed for travel. Those expenses alone push the costs of most retreats far above $10,000, though the town has spent thousands more on consultants and training materials.

Taxpayers have footed the bill for hundreds of dollars spent on fuel when Marana officials drive to distant retreat destinations. During a retreat in 2003, Marana officials spent more than $1,700 commuting 380 miles roundtrip to a casino resort in Prescott, where they charged almost $1,200 at a popular brewery downtown on a Saturday night.

The town's leaders, including Mayor Ed Honea, say the retreats are worth every dime.

"Could it be done cheaper? Sure. I think that's pretty obvious," Honea admitted. "I guess you could have a meeting in the town hall, but the whole idea is to get people where they're not disturbed and make it where everybody concentrates on what they're doing."

The annual retreats - a tradition for many municipalities - are intended to provide town officials the opportunity to work toward developing new policies and long-term goals. Marana's retreats allow town officials to build closer relationships with each other, said Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat, who support's the council's decision to travel out of town.

"The philosophy is - and it's not unusual that I'm aware of - to find a place where we can get our full council and our senior management staff aside in a setting where we can work together to develop new direction for the upcoming fiscal year," he said.

In the past five years, Marana's council has twice traveled 160 miles roundtrip to stay at the luxury resort in Rio Rico and once to stay at the casino resort in Prescott.

When the council decided to stay in Marana for its September 2004 retreat, the town still paid several thousand dollars to work at the Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch, where town officials spent hundreds of dollars eating expensive meals.

Reuwsaat said he didn't think working in town hall would have accomplished the same goals.

"I don't think the atmosphere is the same; we do business day-to-day here," he said. "If you look at most corporations and businesses, they move to another location so they have a fresh setting and an opportunity to develop major discussion and policy regarding the future of their corporations."

Marana's retreats often start on a Friday, during which town staff meet and sometimes participate in icebreaker-type activities. On Saturday, most of the town's senior staff and council members congregate in a large meeting area to discuss issues facing the town.

They usually participate in a series of moderated workshops throughout the day, spending up to eight hours brainstorming new ways to improve Marana. Town officials focused on four key issues at the last retreat: economic development, renewable water resources, affordable living and the town's image.

Some department heads choose to go home after the workshops, though council members and several other town officials often stay for another night on the town. Sunday's activities are brief and include a weekend wrap-up before they head back to Marana.

"The retreats prove to be extremely valuable and, if you look at the town's progress, it has been directly related to the work that has come out of those retreats," Reuwsaat said.

What other councils are doing

Officials from both Oro Valley and Buckeye said they try to hold their retreats in town and they usually spend no more than a few hundred dollars, which covers the cost of working lunches and light refreshments during their all-day Saturday work sessions.

In the last four years, Oro Valley has had retreats twice at its town hall and twice at Kelly Ranch, which did not charge the town for use of its facilities.

Aside from the $3,600 Oro Valley spent to have consultants facilitate a retreat at town hall in July 2004, the town has spent an average of about $141 for each of its last four retreats, according to records released by the town's finance department.

Oro Valley has had out-of-town retreats in the past, but not since Paul Loomis was elected mayor in 1998. Loomis said he's taken a stance that council retreats should be held in town at minimal cost, unless there's a major policy or town document that requires a full, uninterrupted weekend of work.

"We need to be good stewards of taxpayer money," Loomis said. "We also need to look at the overall philosophy of what we're trying to accomplish with that particular retreat. Fortunately or unfortunately, for many people, it's very hard to understand the need to go out of town for a retreat."

Buckeye's last two council retreats were held in town at the Cocina Restaurant, where about 15 to 20 town officials attended the all-day Saturday work sessions. Those retreats cost less than a few hundred dollars each, according to Finance Director Douglas Allen, who said Buckeye tries to keep costs low by staying in town, which also allows the public to attend easily.

Some Marana officials, who didn't want their names printed in this story, appear uncertain that the out-of-town retreats are worth the taxpayers' costs, though the council has made the retreats mandatory for department heads.

"The decision to go out of town or to stay in town is not one the department heads make," Reuwsaat said, adding that Marana had out-of-town retreats even before he was appointed town manager a few years ago. "It's always a question: Do we need to go out of town? What is the goal of the retreat this year? Is it appropriate to have a retreat?"

Honea said he sometimes goes a month without seeing some of the town's department heads and the retreats give him an opportunity to interact with them.

Town Clerk Jocelyn Bronson was reluctant to give her opinion on the issue, saying it's "not given out to the departments to chime in on."

"There has been better communication between council and staff as a result of these retreats, but I'm not sure how much the location has to do with that," she said.

Fun times in Prescott

Most of the town's senior staff and council members stayed at the Prescott Resort Hotel and Conference Center during a retreat in August 2003. Town officials ate several expensive meals during that retreat, pushing the cost far above $13,000.

The town made an extended weekend of the trip, booking 22 rooms on Thursday night, 30 rooms on Friday night and 10 rooms on Saturday night. The town charged $1,781 for banquet service, having the resort cater three continental breakfasts, two working lunches and an evening cookout, according to a contract between Marana and the resort.

Town officials also found time to go out for a night on the town. During a Friday trip to the Prescott Brewing Co., Reuwsaat charged $62.71 to his credit card.

Reuwsaat and about 15 town officials also ate at The Palace Restaurant and Saloon, where they charged another $541.60 worth of expensive meals. Receipts show they ordered sirloin, prime rib, fajitas, Idaho trout, fish filets, ribs, pork loin, mushroom caps and potato skins.

On Saturday night, town officials charged another $1,170 to Reuwsaat's credit card while dining at Murphy's, a bar and restaurant in Prescott that is popular for its large selection of imported and micro-brewed beers. It's also the home of the "Professional Beer Drinkers Club."

A detailed receipt of the items ordered at Murphy's was not included in financial records reviewed by the EXPLORER. If all 30 town officials who were booked to stay the night before went to Murphy's, the tab for each person would total almost $40, while the average dinner there costs about $20, according to its menu.

Honea said he couldn't remember that night specifically, though he and other town officials are known to have a few drinks when they're out on the town. He said they always pay the alcohol portion of their tabs with a separate check, though, and he doesn't think it's possible any alcohol is included in the missing receipt.

"If I go to something like that, I'll have a beer or a glass of wine, but I pay for it. You can take that to the bank," he said. "We do not buy alcohol on a town card at any time. Even if the Queen of Sheba comes into town, we'll buy her dinner, but we won't pay for any alcohol."

Mileage reimbursement for 13 town officials for the 380-mile trip to Prescott cost taxpayers $1,704. The town also hired a training consultant, Bob Lewis, to facilitate the retreat for $2,906. Honea said he thinks bringing consultants are a waste of time and money.

About one week after the retreat, several town officials and council members made another trip to stay at Marriott's Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, where they spent several thousand dollars more. Two months later, the council stayed in Prescott again, charging well over $1,000 during a governor's conference.

Running a tab in Rio Rico

During a three-day retreat in August 2001, the town paid the Rio Rico Resort $8,198 for catered meals and hotel rooms. That doesn't include charges made to town officials' credit cards or the hundreds of dollars paid for mileage reimbursements.

Town officials spent more than $3,200 eating at the resort. Taxpayers footed the bill for 30 catered lunches at about $45 apiece, and another 64 breakfasts and dinners at about $30 apiece.

The council charged $1,138 for food themselves, eating two breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner each. Hotel charges bumped their tab up to $2,804.

Honea said he had no idea the food costs were so high, though he said driving down the road to find a cheaper meal wasn't really an option, because it would be too much of a burden.

"If you go on a retreat, say, up to Rio Rico, you're kind of captive," he said. Though, it appears that hasn't stopped them from going out on the town at night or driving down to Nogales for more expensive meals.

"Actually, if you stop and think about it," Honea added, $45 isn't a lot of money for a meal. "If my wife and I go out to dinner, it's never less than $50."

Not saving in Marana

Reuwsaat and senior staff members joined the council at the Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch in Marana for a smaller-scale retreat in September 2004, though they still spent about $4,000.

Despite being a stone's throw from town hall, they spent $2,154 to rent the facilities and dine on expensive foods. They spent another $1,361 for a consultant, Glen Dickens, to facilitate the retreat.

Taxpayers footed the bill for a $719 dinner catered at the Lazy K, almost $700 for two other lunches and another $135 for a "special order food item."

"It was a very intense work day," Reuwsaat said, adding that the town was able to accomplish several tasks during their all-day Saturday work session.

Reuwsaat charged another $459 at Lil' Abner's in Marana, where about 15 town officials enjoyed a meal after the retreat.

While retreat costs in 2004 were lower than average for Marana, council members made up for it later in the year by spending thousands more on trips to Lake Havasu and Phoenix. Mileage reimbursement for two council members totaled more than $450 for the drive to Lake Havasu.

Reuwsaat charged almost $2,000 to his town credit card so the council and other town officials could stay at Phoenix's Hyatt Regency Hotel in December 2004. That trip allowed them to join architect Vern Swaback on a bus tour of six master-planned communities in the Phoenix area. The town hired Swaback's firm in 2004 for more than $200,000 to help draft new residential design standards and plan development of Marana's Town Center.

"It was important for us to go down and look at (other communities) and ask questions," Reuwsaat said. "We needed to do that in order to help us develop our Town Center planning process and residential design standards."

Old habits die hard

Marana returned to a familiar retreat destination this past October, spending more than $10,000 for the town's department heads and council members to stay at the Esplendor Resort in Rio Rico, where some council members found time to golf.

The town added the cost of bringing the entire Planning and Zoning Commission along for the first time, making it one of the largest retreats in Marana history. Reuwsaat gave all 34 town officials a copy of a book called, "Kingdomality: An Ingenious New Way to Triumph in Management," which cost about $500.

The town issued two checks to the resort totaling $9,976, paying for 30 rooms for two nights. Honea, who was later reimbursed $68.85 for his travel costs, said the town negotiated a lower rate than the resort originally wanted to charge.

Town officials made several charges to their town-issued credit cards, running the bill up past $10,000. Those charges range from the $4.66 Airport Director Charlie Mangum spent at a supermarket in Rio Rico to the $174 Reuwsaat spent at the resort's restaurant.

Reuwsaat charged another $910 to his card at the Palo Duro Creek Golf Course in Nogales, though records show the town was reimbursed for the cost. Town officials said the charge was for a Saturday night dinner at the golf course's restaurant.

The retreat was held just a couple of weeks after council members returned from a trip to Mesa, where they spent several thousand dollars to stay at the Marriott Hotel during an Arizona League of Cities and Towns conference.

Councilman Tim Escobedo said he thinks Marana uses its financial resources wisely when traveling out of town for retreats.

"I think it gives us an opportunity to better communicate and have something a little bit more secluded - something away from the community, where we really have an opportunity to sit down and concentrate on issues in the community," he said.

Reuwsaat said he wasn't sure where the next retreat will be held, or whether there will be another one soon. Town officials are still processing the workload that came out of the last retreat, he said, adding: "I think our plates are pretty full right now."

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