Food & Drink

Council members question Modesto’s spending on food for employee meals, events

Modesto spent $80,753 on food and beverages in one year for such occasions as feeding officers at crime scenes, community events, working lunches, employee recognition and snacks for employee training.

Some examples: human resources spent $98.38 for a working lunch for five at Fuzio Universal Bistro, and the city manager’s office spent $99.28 for pizzas and salad from Mountain Mike’s for a working lunch for a homelessness task force.

Human resources also spent $100 for a gift basket for a new city department director, while the Utilities Department spent $228.24 at The River’s Edge restaurant in Knights Ferry for a management staff business retreat. And environmental services spent $29.99 for two dozen cookies for an employee’s one-year work anniversary.

City officials compiled this spending from March 1, 2018, through Feb. 28, 2019, at the request of City Council members Kristi Ah You and Tony Madrigal. The information was presented at a special June 26 Audit Committee meeting.

Ah You criticized City Manager Joe Lopez at the meeting for not responding sooner to her and Madrigal’s request. She said it took three requests before the city provided her and Madrigal with the information. The two council members made their first request in April.

Lopez apologized for not responding to Ah You and Madrigal after they sent their first request but said city staff began work on it immediately. He said it took time to compile the information because the requests came as the city was putting together its budget for the fiscal year that started July 1.

She also repeatedly questioned Lopez on why he planned to bring this to the Finance Committee instead of the Audit Committee, which she serves on, and that the initial report to finance showed about $100,000 in spending.

Lopez said her and Madrigal’s original request asked that the information be presented at finance or audit and because there wasn’t a scheduled audit meeting he assumed the information would go to finance. The city also did more work on refining the spending, and the $100,000 had included nonfood and meal purchases, such as office supplies.

Spending varied widely among city departments over the one year. Finance ($100) and the city attorney’s office ($220) spent the least, while parks, recreation and neighborhoods ($13,347) and utilities ($35,255) spent the most, according to a city report.

Ah You and Madrigal don’t question Modesto’s providing food and drinks to employees at emergencies, such as Gatorade for firefighters working long hours at a fire or fast food for detectives working a homicide, and understand the city needs to recognize its employees, but ask whether the city still can tighten spending.

“I’m going to say this, it’s a bit inflammatory, but our people who make over $100,000 a year do not need to go to lunch (at the taxpayers’ expense) and have a business meeting. That’s all. They can take care of their lunch.” Ah You said.

(Lopez said the information the city put together does not include all the times managers pay for their own working lunches, a practice he said he and department directors follow when they have lunch.)

Madrigal said he hopes limiting spending on food will create a culture at City Hall that will lead to more belt tightening and over time free up enough money to meet some of the community’s unmet needs. He said he would be hard-pressed to explain to his constituents how much the city spends on food and beverages.

“They are going to get on my case about it,” he said, “(and say), ‘you can’t pay for (surveillance cameras) where they are dumping trash in my neighborhood?’ ... They are not going to buy it. They are going to beat me up about it.”

As some context, Modesto has about 1,200 employees and an annual operating budget of roughly $400 million.

Lopez said he was surprised by how little the city spends. But he said he appreciated the two council members raising the issue because it gives the city the opportunity to improve, and city staff has drafted a policy governing this spending.

Still, Lopez said the city asks a lot from its employees and is trying to build a culture that recognizes them.

“I don’t want to eliminate everything when we ask so much of our employees,” he said. “... But don’t take that to mean I don’t believe there aren’t boundaries or rules that need to be followed. ... But our employees are our greatest assets.”

The $80,753 for food and drink included $4,364 for the seven-member City Council, primarily for dinner before council meetings. The spending included $122.98 on Feb. 27, 2018, for Fuzio Universal Bistro, $151.57 on April 10, 2018, for Chefs of New York, $215.75 on Sept. 26 for Galletto Ristorante and $161.70 on Nov. 6 for Monsoon Restaurant.

The meals include council members and whoever else attends the closed session meetings before the regular meetings, according to the city. Modesto’s charter requires council members be provided with dinner before their meetings.

Mayor Ted Brandvold said at the Audit Committee meeting that if the City Council tightens the rules it also will have to follow them. Ah You and Madrigal said they were fine with that. The committee directed staff to report back on the spending and policies of cities that are similar to Modesto.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.