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Mayor’s travel expenses bust budget

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Burroughs submits $25,000 in receipts for reimbursement

After Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs submitted his travel expenses to the city this year, officials had to boost the City Council’s $30,000 travel budget by 50 percent to $45,000.

Burroughs submitted about $25,000 in receipts, eclipsing what he submitted in 2012 nearly fivefold and far surpassing the amount spent by all the other council members combined.

In the waning months of his tenure — he is ineligible to run for a fourth term because of term limits — Burroughs has met with officials at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., traveled to Austin three times, flown to Brazil and Estonia, and taken four excursions to join other mayors of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Dallas, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Las Vegas.

Burroughs said that earlier in his tenure he was not able to travel the way that he had planned because of the economic downturn and the city’s finances. But now that the city’s revenues are growing again, he felt it was important to travel and advocate for Denton.

“That’s the frustrating part of having to leave office,” Burroughs said. “You learn so much about how the city works and how to argue for your city. If you want to urge officials for changes in policy, you have to be in the room for that.”

He has worked on regional projects because he could go by car to those meetings. But national advocacy is important, too, Burroughs said. Cities on the East Coast don’t have the same problems with water, transportation and immigration that Texas cities do.

Other area mayors also travel, but the costs, and who pays them, varies. Garland reimbursed $4,383 in travel expenses for its mayor to travel to three conferences this year, according to the city’s finance office. Lewisville reimbursed $1,769, most of that so the mayor could attend the National League of Cities summit in Charlotte, N.C., officials said.

San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro, travels extensively, including a recent trip to Denton to speak at the University of North Texas. According to news reports, his travels aren’t covered by San Antonio taxpayers, but by his political supporters. Castro, who was featured on the cover of the August issue of Texas Monthly, is a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Burroughs’ trips to Estonia and Brazil make up $11,000 of his travel receipts this year, according to documents obtained in an open records request. Most of that, about $9,500, was spent on plane tickets. If Burroughs had not bought frequent flier miles from his late father-in-law for one of the trips, the airfare costs would have been higher still, documents showed.

Both trips were planned by engineering professors at UNT eager to make connections between researchers and cities interested in sustainability, Burroughs said.

Nancy Berry, the mayor of College Station — home to Texas A&M University, one of the state’s top engineering schools — has submitted a total of $1,471 in travel expenses for the past two fiscal years for trips to Austin and city conferences, according to city spokeswoman Cheryl Wright.

“Our mayor pays for a lot of things herself,” Wright said.

While copies of receipts often show Burroughs grabbing a cup of coffee at the airport, a meal from a fast-food restaurant or a quick deli sandwich, he also has expensed dinners at upscale restaurants and lodging at luxury hotels. A closer examination of receipts submitted for the past two years show that junkets to meet with the U.S. Conference of Mayors have proved costly, too.

Among those expenses the city paid:

A pre-conference dinner with other mayors at a Dallas steakhouse: $324;

Six nights at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C.: $2,734;

A pair of post-presidential inauguration dinners: $185 and $125; and

Five nights in a Las Vegas hotel suite: $1,114.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is a nonpartisan group for the nation’s 1,305 cities with a population of 30,000 or more. In addition to forums for leadership development, the group promotes certain suburban and urban policies and works to foster good relationships between the federal government and cities.

The group holds regular meetings around the country, including an annual meeting in June. A winter meeting is held every January in Washington. Burroughs said several mayors who were part of 2009 exchange trip to Saudi Arabia are regulars at the meetings. Burroughs was part of that exchange trip.

Receipts and expense reports showed Burroughs picking up the tab for a dinner the night before the mayors conference began a fall leadership meeting in Dallas in September 2012. Cincinnati’s mayor, Mark Mallory, a member of Mallory’s staff, and Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, Ark., joined Burroughs for dinner at Al Biernat’s, a Dallas steakhouse known for its people-watching. The diners ordered from among the most expensive items on the menu, including a Kobe filet ($69), rib-eye steak ($51), lamb chops ($45) and a filet “Oscar,” a filet mignon topped with crab meat ($48).

Denton taxpayers reimbursed Burroughs for all of it.

Burroughs said Mallory had picked up the tab when he visited him in Cincinnati earlier in the year. The Denton mayor had traveled to Kentucky on personal business, but he made time to visit with Mallory.

“That kind of exchange is what ends up happening,” Burroughs said.

One person pays the check one night, and someone else pays the check another night, he said.

“The bill is substantial because it’s for a lot of people,” he said.

When Burroughs picked up the tab for two dinners during the group’s January meeting in Washington, city records show Denton reimbursed him only a portion of the total cost. For a $431 tab at The Capital Grille, his third night in town, the city reimbursed $185. Two nights later, the city reimbursed about $125, or about half of the tab, at City Lights of China. The city did not reimburse the cost of a $50 bottle of wine. A review of other receipts showed the city routinely deducted the cost of alcoholic beverages.

Burroughs didn’t submit any other dinner receipts for that trip, but submitted $4,575 in all. The figure totaled about $1,200 more than the receipts he submitted for the 2012 meeting, in part because he stayed one extra day for presidential inauguration events.

Receipts from the most recent trip showed Burroughs using both a city credit card and paying out-of-pocket for expenses at the mayors’ conference in Las Vegas in June. His wife accompanied him and he lined out many items on the receipts, reflecting expenses either she or the couple incurred, documents showed. The city agreed to reimburse $1,114 of the room charges incurred over a five-night stay in a suite at The Mandalay Bay Hotel. In all, the city covered $3,100, a figure that includes $700 for the conference registration and almost $700 for meals.

Maher Maso, mayor of Frisco, also attended the same mayors’ conferences this year. Even though he stayed at the same hotels as Burroughs, he was reimbursed far less, $1,768 for the Washington meeting and $981 for travel to the Las Vegas conference, Frisco city documents showed.

In an e-mail approving Burroughs’ additional expenses in Washington, City Manager George Campbell said he discussed the matter with the mayor.

“He feels that the additional days [sic] expense for the inauguration events is clearly of benefit to the City of Denton and was in conjunction with the USCM,” Campbell wrote.

In an interview, Campbell said this year had been unique with opportunities and the City Council was briefed on the choices and expenses to make sure members agreed the city was well-served.

“We’re trying to enhance our relationship with the university and do a lot more economic development than we’ve done in the past,” Campbell said.

This year’s $30,000 travel budget was projected from expenses filed by the mayor and council members in previous years. Some of the extra expenses were covered with contingency funds, Campbell said. The trip to visit with the EPA was covered by the utility departments, records showed.

Unlike many federal and state government agencies, the city of Denton does not reimburse travel costs at established rates. For example, although Burroughs and his wife stayed in a hotel suite in Las Vegas, the city reimbursed only at the single room rate of $199 plus tax. The General Services Administration has set the federal government reimbursement rate for Las Vegas lower still, and, according to the market, at $99 per night.

The GSA allows $183 per night for Washington, D.C., area hotels in January. (It allows a little more during peak tourism season in the summer.) Denton reimbursed Burroughs the full amount for his 2012 stay at Sofitel Lafayette Square, which was more than $375 per night, and his 2013 stay at the Capital Hilton, which was more than $450 per night.

Similarly, for many large U.S. cities, the GSA recommends $71 per day to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The city’s policy is to pay actual expenses for lodging, including the room taxes, since employees and council members are not exempt from them, according to Chuck Springer, the city’s finance director. By policy, the city will also reimburse the actual cost of meals when the travel involves an overnight stay or two or more consecutive day trips, but only for a city employee or council member.

However, it’s possible Denton could revisit the matter, since travel expenses had not been an issue before, Campbell said.

“When elected officials give their time and energy, you don’t want them to have to contribute, too,” Campbell said. “Next year could be entirely different.”

Staff writer George Joseph contributed to this report.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.