I showed up 20 minutes early for the Monday, Feb. 23 Study Session of the Ceres City Council. At 6 p.m. I would hear city leaders lay out a plan to increase the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) in Ceres. I was sure to hear city officials plead the need for more tax revenue by raising the tax rate paid by people who use Ceres motels/hotels.
I set up my laptop in the Council Chambers of the Ceres Community Center and made a quick jaunt to the restroom beforehand. I walked past the room where the council and city staff often eats before a Study Session. The door was open and I could see the council and staff eating pizzas and drinking sodas, which I learned later was paid for by the city, AKA the taxpayers.
Smelling pizza is one of the things you notice when you've skipped your dinner to make an early Study Session, which typically starts at either 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. The regular council meeting starts at 7 p.m.
When I returned to the chambers, Councilmember Linda Ryno was sitting alone behind the dais, looking at the back of her hand or her nails as if she were bored waiting for the meeting to begin. I asked why she wasn't having pizza with the rest of the council.
Linda, who took office in late 2013, told me that she didn't feel it was right to eat food on the taxpayers' dime, so she doesn't partake.
Come to think of it, the practice bothers me as well. There's really no reason why paid staffers, councilmen, city staff, board trustees, district superintendents and teachers should expect the taxpayers to feed them.
Members of the Ceres City Council are not paid exorbitant sums but they are paid stipends. As mayor, Chris Vierra makes $700 per month in stipends and collected $19,968 in medical, dental and vision benefits in 2014. That's on top of what he makes in the private sector as a licensed civil engineer, his real job. In 2013 Vice Mayor Bret Durossette collected $500 per month and $19,514 in annual benefits in 2014 on top of what he makes as a high school teacher and coach. Mike Kline, who works for Tony's Fine Foods, collects $500 each month as a councilman and collected $8,019 in city benefits during 2014. Ryno, the only retiree on the council, collects her $500 per month stipend and took advantage of $14,512 in benefits for 2014.
The council stipend is to help councilmembers compensate for time and expenses while on the job. I think all of them can afford to buy their own pizza. It's the principle of it. After all, no one ever tells the voters: "I want to serve the taxpayers and yes you will supply me with free pizza too."
I buy pizza for my family and I know that one trip to Mountain Mike's can set me back $53, which ironically what three pizzas and a salad cost the city for one recent council/staff meal.
The council's pizza is funded out of the City Council's Travel, Lodging and Meals budget line item of $14,400 for the year. Out of this pot the council spent $1,662 for food, water and candy for council meetings and study sessions from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. So far this fiscal year (from July 1, 2014 to present date), the council has spent $1,090.
I can hear the council members already. What's the big deal, Jeff? We work hard for the city, we are fiscally prudent with the city's money and we spend a lot of time serving the city and its citizens. Why do you begrudge us a free meal and water to keep is going so we can do business for the city?
Well, that's kind of what your stipend is intended to cover.
Times are tough for most in Ceres. I bet if you asked most taxpayers in Ceres if they'd approve of free pizza for the council they would say "why should we?"
A similar matter came up in Pueblo, Colo., last year when former Councilwoman Dorothy Butcher publicly complained that the city was paying for the meals of councilmembers before Monday Study Sessions. The Pueblo City Council bristled at the criticism. "We spend the city's money prudently," said Pueblo Councilman Steve Nawrocki. "Council's pay was set before I took office. And I've never heard any voter complain about it." (But did they even know about it?) Another, Councilwoman Ami Nawrocki, said she comes to the weekly work sessions after walking her route as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier and said she not only didn't have time to eat before council meetings, "I think those dinners actually help us communicate better with each other."
You mean to tell me that a councilman can't stop by a McDonald's or Taco Bell between work and the meeting and brown bag it inside the council digs?
While she does seek reimbursement for travel or lodging expenses while attending special out-of-town events like the League of California Cities meetings, Ryno explained that she doesn't ask for reimbursement for meals. As she puts it, "I have to eat anyway so why expect the taxpayers to pay for it?"
I had the privilege of being elected to and serving on a City Council (not Ceres) from 1990 to 1994. I never asked for a food reimbursement. But our council learned that one Planning Commissioner, on a Bay Area League of California Cities Conference, expected to dine at one pricy San Francisco restaurant and have the city reimburse her. It rubbed us all the wrong way and our small city council changed the policy.
This kind of practice goes on everywhere in government circles, including school districts locally. Well-paid staffers - and public servants who receive a stipend - routinely hand in requests for reimbursements for meals, travel and lodging. (It's never for a conference at the Holiday Inn in Visalia but at some resort on the coast). When you see what some of those administrators are paid - check out transparentcalifornia.com - you can see they need no help buying their own food - ever.
Here in Ceres I've seen the Ceres Unified School District cater meals for staff and board functions.
I'm not a big fan of Jerry Brown but he was a pretty sensible guy when it came to expenses in his first terms as governor. He lived in an apartment, drove his own car and refused to live in the governor's mansion. If only all of our officials were as prudent with the taxpayers' money. Today, while Gov. Brown preaches a sermon on frugality, Brown has endorsed the ridiculous $68 billion high-speed rail boondoggle while not as enthusiastic about much needed dams at the cost of $3 to $4 billion apiece.
As one who must cough up an additional $1,600 more to pay the IRS this April 15, I bristle at government waste, whether it's the $2.1 million cost for Nancy Pelosi to fly on Air Force jets over a two-year period, or the $44 million spent by Obama and family on travel and vacations. Or even $1,600 a year for pizza for the council.
It would be nice to see belt tightening in all government circles and quit treating the taxpayers like an endless cash cow, even if it means buying your own pizza or cancelling a massively expensive high-speed rail project. It is, after all, money from the hard-working men and women living here.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org