Televisions for staff use. International travel. Monthly cell phone bills into the hundreds of dollars and $3,000 per member per year for the use of their personal cars.

These are among the items the Honolulu City Council purchased with taxpayer funds so far this fiscal year. With three months still remaining, some members have already burned through their $16,000 kitties.

The so-called “allotments” are on top of the part-time council members’ regular salaries — $49,824 apiece and $55,666 for the chair — and could be growing next year. The council’s Budget Committee last week amended the legislative budget so that each member would have more than $19,000 at their disposal to pay for work-related incidentals.

That money is used to pay for much of the operating costs, excluding salaries, of offices that each serve more than 100,000 constituents. The staff needs to juggle citizens and competing interest groups asking for responsiveness on a wide range of complex issues. The purchases are outlined in monthly expenditure reports filed by members and posted on the city’s website.

Taxpayer-Funded Technology

Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson and Stanley Chang each purchased a 32-inch television. Anderson’s cost $581 and Chang’s $283; Anderson chalked the difference up to the fact that he also bought two wall mounts. Chang wrote on his expenditure report that his staff would use the TV to watch council and committee meetings, and Anderson told Civil Beat the same thing in a phone interview Tuesday.

“I use the TV myself to monitor council meetings when I need to come back into the office to take a phone call or meet a constituent so I don’t miss a vote,” Anderson said. “I do think that having a TV set in the office is necessary to do the people’s business.”

He previously had a television in his office that staffers were always coming in to use, so he put the new one in his office and gave his staff the old one to mount in their space on the third floor of Honolulu Hale.

“Pretty much the only thing that’s watched on this television, upwards of 95 percent of the time, are council meetings and committee meetings. It’s pretty much stuck on Olelo,” he said, adding that the staff also uses the TV to watch DVDs on subjects like mass transit and wastewater treatment plant technologies. “That’s basically all that’s watched on this thing.”

Televisions aren’t the only technology council members are paying for out of their contingencies.

Seven of nine members spent at least some money on cell phone bills, but the loquacious Romy Cachola must have run out of anytime minutes. He spent more than $1,200 of taxpayers’ money on on cell phone bills in the first eight months of the year, including a high of $283 in November alone. Anderson spent $1,050 in the first seven months and is on the same pace as Cachola.

Taxpayer-Funded Talking

Tom Berg, a Tea Party Republican and purported fiscal conservative, is in for a frugal next few months. He spent all but $121.32 of his $16,032 allowance in the first three quarters of Fiscal Year 2012.

He spent most of his money on printing, copies and postage, including $7,648 — nearly half of his yearly budget — on what he described in his expenditure report as “9” x 12″ progress report card mailer and postage for District 1 newsletter.” If the hard copies weren’t enough for District 1 constituents, Berg spent another $74 every month for the marketing software he uses to distribute email that occasionally gets caught in the city’s own spam filter.

Like all his colleagues, Berg has taken a $250 car allowance each month, but he doesn’t have enough money left to cover that for the last three months of the year. Last year, he actually went over his budget by $228 and was in the red at the close of the fiscal year, though he started a little bit in the hole because former council chair Todd Apo spent a good chunk of the district’s allowance before resigning.

The big purchase on the last day that put Berg over his limit was printing 200 copies of a 126-page “rail issue” for more than $450. Cachola also went over his Fiscal Year 2011 allowance and carried over a $151 deficit over into this year’s tally.

Berg said in an email Tuesday that it’s not hypocritical for him to criticize the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation for spending $2,600 on coloring books that he’s termed “propaganda” while he spends more than that on his own communications with the public.

“The outreach effort to constituents is not propaganda, but the dissemination of facts, town hall meetings to attend, legislation pending, status on road and park improvement projects, and in general, reporting on how their money is being spent and what the council district one office is undertaking on the constituency’s behalf,” Berg wrote. “HART on the other hand, is about propaganda and advocacy to mislead the public that steel wheels on steel rails beats the bus and all other forms of transit.”

Berg said his district faces unique challenges — in particular, the landfill — that require a high level of constituent outreach.

If you are going to compare expenditures by district, please take into account that in order for the rest of the island to prosper, the rest of the island uses my district as its dumping grounds, the ashtray, the armpit and this aftermath requires some fighting back. And that is what I do for my district- fight back. And to inform the constituents when and where the battles are to be fought, it is my civic duty and obligation to spend every resource in my war chest to counter the onslaught and environmental injustices abound. That is why I spent the bulk of my allowance on notifying the constituency of meetings and other matters they care about. It is through our office’s efforts, that we are educating the residents on how to win the battle and get our fair share. I am proud of my staff and confident every penny we spent and intend on spending, will improve our district’s plight and the feedback I am getting from those we serve, is that they appreciate it.

Berg has used the allowance to get the information out on issues like sewer and water rates, the landfill, emergency preparedness, flooding. He’s now been forced to spend money out of his own pocket to rent a school cafeteria to hold a town hall meeting on genetically modified organisms in food, and plans to spend more of his own money soon to talk about electricity rates.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tulsi Gabbard spent the least from July through March and still has more than $11,000 of her $16,000 left to spend. No purchase exceeded the $250 she spent each month on her car allowance.

Here’s a list of the council members’ remaining allowance balances with three months left in the fiscal year, sorted from thriftiest to spend-thriftiest:

District Member Remaining Balance as of March 31
6 Tulsi Gabbard $11,017.15
5 Ann Kobayashi $7,473.90
3 Ikaika Anderson $5,417.66
8 Breene Harimoto $4,769.73
9 Nestor Garcia $4,147.98
7 Romy Cachola $3,920.05
4 Stanley Chang $2,478.541
2 Ernie Martin $1,035.28
1 Tom Berg $121.31

*Source: Honolulu City Council expenditure reports

Taxpayer-Funded Travel

Chair Ernie Martin spent the second-most during the first nine months of the fiscal year and has only $1,035 of $16,032 left for the fourth quarter. Martin’s biggest purchases were travel-related — more than $3,500 for he and a staffer to go to the National Association of Counties conference in Portland last July and another $3,400 for him to go to the Rail-Volution conference in Washington, D.C. in October.

Other council members were at the same rail conference, but their trips were paid for by the Pacific Resource Partnership, a pro-rail construction union group. Martin didn’t want to miss out on the festivities and paid his own way, using his council allowance. Breene Harimoto spent $2,400 on the trip, and another $2,400 for a smart growth conference in San Diego.

Other members’ international travels show how they view their job responsibilities. Cachola spent $1,200 of taxpayer money to travel for the “Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora” and Nestor Garcia spent $1,400 for a sister city visit to Cebu and Manila.

Martin also reimbursed a member of his staff for more than $1,400 worth for the mileage they traveled in their car over the course of the first eight months. The spot for mileage in March has not yet been filled in. Martin was a spendthrift in his first six months on the council and was left with $251 of his $7,000 half-year allowance at the end of Fiscal Year 2011.

Martin said in an email forwarded to Civil Beat that he sees trips he and his staff have taken as “opportunities to orientate ourselves with the key county issues, policies and programs from a national perspective.”

“I have always supported the training, development and advancement of my staff,” he wrote. “Several members, including myself, have provided their staff the opportunity to attend conferences to learn what policies other municipalities are discussing and adopting as well as best practices from other counties.”

He cited a council initiative to use technology to help constituents access government and said Rail-Volution helped him learn more about transit-oriented development.

Martin said his office “will closely monitor all remaining expenditures to ensure adherence to the Council’s Administrative Polices that prohibit Councilmembers from exceeding their annual allotment.”

Next Year’s Council Allowances

One way to avoid overspending is simply to raise the credit limit.

Chang proposed an amendment to the legislative budget that would add $40,000 to the pot for members to split. The Budget Committee advanced his proposal and increased the number to $45,000, which would bring the allowance to $19,400 per council member.

Chang justified the increase in a request that said he and his colleagues need more money cover increases in the costs of printing and postage, conference attendance and registration fees, leis and gifts of aloha and travel and mileage expenses.

(Read the Inside Honolulu blog for up-to-the-minute updates from the Honolulu City Council and other city politics and issues coverage.)

Chang told Civil Beat Tuesday that members’ 5 percent pay cut is a demonstration that they’re sacrificing, and that the money in the contingency is needed to communicate with the public.

“It is extremely challenging to keep in touch with all of our constituents and keep up to date on all of their needs and concerns,” he said. “So we have to be creative. Would it be nice to be able to mail newsletters and updates? Absolutely. But we just don’t have the resources.”

He said the $40,000 increase he proposed came from savings from the administration’s budget for sister city summits and “was not just out of the blue.” He also said contingency expenditures are “probably the most transparent part of the whole city budget, as well it should be.”

For Comparison’s Sake

Martin argued that Mayor Peter Carlisle not only has an official city vehicle at his disposal and a travel expense line item in the budget but also has an annual contingency allowance of $24,741 — giving him far more money to use than the council’s proposed allotment of $19,400.

“Councilmembers should have the same opportunity to communicate with their constituents as does the Mayor,” Martin wrote.

For further comparison, Hawaii lawmakers have annual allowances of $10,200 apiece for a legislative session that lasts less than four months, according to Hawaii House spokeswomen Georgette Deemer and Senate spokeswoman Caroline Julian.

For the House, that money covers “incidental expenses connected with legislative duties” and includes meals, mileage, telephone bills, postage, mailings and other things, according to the House administrative manual.

The Senate’s administrative manual sets different postage limits depending on who you are: $3,500 for senior leadership, $2,500 for other chairs and $1,500 for everyone else. And when it comes to making copies and using office supplies, Senate offices are allowed to use communal supplies and machines as long as the copies are for official Senate business and not for campaigning, surveys or personal correspondence. It’s hard to translate the limit — 100,000 copies per office per year — into a dollar figure. Anything over 100,000 comes out of the allowance.

The takeaway is that part-time Hawaii lawmakers get more allowance money per constituent than year-round council members.

Body Allowance Approx. Constituents Allowance Per Constituent
Hawaii House of Representatives $10,200 26,700 $0.38
Hawaii Senate $10,200 54,400 $0.19
Honolulu City Council (FY 2013 proposed) $19,400 106,000 $0.18
Honolulu City Council (FY 2012) $16,032 106,000 $0.15

Source: Civil Beat analysis

The City Council allowance has grown over the years. A look at the annual expenditure reports filed by Cachola and Garcia, the longest-tenured council members who are term-limited and cannot run for re-election, shows these allotments:

Fiscal Year Allowance
2013 (proposed) $19,400
2012 $16,032
2011 $14,000
2010 $16,000
2009 $18,111
2008 $18,011
2007 $12,000
2006 $9,920

Source: Honolulu City Council expenditure reports

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