Sacramento city employees are hitting the road again staying in hotels, flying across the country, and attending conferences at levels not seen since the recession slammed the city budget.
Travel-related purchases made by city workers on their government credit cards so far this year are at their highest level since 2008. Through July 2012, they totaled $119,367, nearly double what employees spent in the first seven months of 2011, according to a Bee analysis of data obtained through the Public Records Act.
Those travel purchases helped drive an overall increase in credit card use by city workers in 2012, records show. Charges for a range of purchases from office supplies to meals are on pace to hit nearly $1.5 million, their highest level since 2009.
The jump in spending comes as the city continues to grapple with ongoing deficits. This summer, the City Council voted to lay off more than a dozen police officers to help fill a $15.7 million budget gap.
City officials said they are confident employees are not abusing their cards by making charges for non-work purposes. Still, with more than 200 accounts and roughly 48,000 purchases made by employees over the past five years, City Manager John Shirey said last week he plans to scale back use of the cards.
He also defended the increased travel spending. The trips aren't extravagances, he said, but central to educating a workforce that needs to find efficiencies in an era of tighter budgets.
Since taking office last year, Shirey has urged city employees to attend training seminars and conferences outside the region. He said other cities and organizations have valuable advice to offer on tackling the fiscal challenges and urban growth issues facing Sacramento.
"If you're going to have a smaller workforce, that workforce has to be well-trained and has to be in touch with current trends," Shirey said this week in a phone interview, speaking from a League of California Cities conference in San Diego. "All the wisdom and innovation does not reside in Sacramento. We need to learn how it's being done in other places."
As it turns out, one of the credit cards used most frequently on travel is Shirey's.
In the past year, he has booked travel to Denver; Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Edmonton, Alberta; and Monterey at a cost to taxpayers of about $9,000, credit card records show.
During those trips, Shirey has stayed at hotels operated by the Hilton and Hyatt chains. On the Orlando trip, where Shirey helped lead the city's negotiations over a now-defunct financing plan for a new Kings arena, records show he spent $1,504 on airfare and $84 on transportation provided by Mears Luxury, a limo and taxi service.
Shirey also spent $1,047 on airfare to the Large Cities Executive Forum conference in Edmonton. He said he did not book first-class travel for either trip.
Councilman Steve Cohn, chair of the city's audit committee, said he would await results of an internal audit on employee credit card use before drawing conclusions about the rise in travel expenses. But he said he didn't think the city was spending more on travel than it had budgeted.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who noted she has paid for city-related trips to Seattle, New Orleans and Denver with campaign and personal money, said the city should be "very careful" in its travel spending.
"I'd like to hear we are using great discretion in selecting travel that is the most relevant to goals we're trying to accomplish as a city right now," she said.
Four years ago, with the city in the early stages of a run of historic deficits, then-City Manager Ray Kerridge announced that all travel expenses would have to be approved by his office. Spending plummeted from $213,905 in 2008 to less than half that the following year.
Kerridge traveled very little. He charged $800 in travel costs to his credit card during his final 18 months in office, almost all of which was reimbursed by outside groups.
Former interim City Manager Gus Vina spent about $4,000 on travel during a yearlong tenure that ended in 2011; most of that stemmed from one trip to a conference in Washington, D.C.
While travel costs have jumped under Shirey in 2012, they remain well below 2008 figures.
The records examined by The Bee did not include charges made by the offices of Mayor Kevin Johnson or the City Council. City officials are withholding those records, citing the ongoing criminal investigation into the spending of a former mayoral aide and an outside audit of credit card use by elected officials.
The travel data was culled from thousands of pages of credit card records analyzed by The Bee. Other findings include:
Hiltons, Hyatts and Marriotts are the preferred hotel chains for city employees, with each chain drawing more than $30,000 in credit card charges over the past five years. City employees also spent about $16,000 at Disney resort hotels.
When it comes to eating out, city employees are generally frugal. They charged meals totaling about $10,000 at Subway during the past five years. They did sometimes go to nicer establishments: Employees spent about $1,000 at Lucca Restaurant in midtown and about $900 at the Grange Restaurant downtown.
City employees like WalMart. They spent about $190,000 at Sam's Club stores and another $120,000 at affiliated Walmart stores. Charges totaled $223,000 at Home Depot and about $170,000 at Smart & Final.
The city, which supplies drinking water to its residents, made $25,000 in purchases from companies that supply bottled water.