South El Monte’s spending problems revisisted


I notice there is some discussion about the travel expenses accumulated by South El Monte Councilwoman Blanca Figueroa. Here is a story I wrote in November. Since the story ran, the District Attorney’s office launched an investigation into these expenses, and the city cut it’s budget from $60,000 a year to be divided among five directors down to $40,000 a year

City exceeds travel budget; mayor says benefits worth it
San Gabriel Valley Tribune (West Covina, CA) – November 2, 2007
Author/Byline: Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
Section: News

SOUTH EL MONTE – A three-week trip through the interior of Mexico, a five-day stay near Disney World and a handful of other trips put council members over their travel budget last year by $8,000, records show.

South El Monte budgeted $60,000 during fiscal year 2006-07 to split between the five council members – at $12,000 each – for travel and meeting expenses .

But last year, the City Council spent $68,258.

“Do the ends justify the means?” said Mayor Blanca Figueroa, who spent $20,811 last year. “Absolutely.”

City officials say the development projects that have blossomed recently, including commercial projects and the construction of 100 new homes, are reason enough to justify the trips.

“We’ve had so much growth and development in the city,” said Councilman Hector Delgado. “We have really changed the image of South El Monte .”

The overspending, however, has prompted the city to re-examine its policy and develop ways to curb its travel spending, which council members will discuss at a special meeting on Friday.

“Just because you have the budget doesn’t mean that you should waste every penny of it,” said Councilman Louie Agui aga, who had $2,284 remaining in his travel budget. “I’m going to recommend that we lower our budget.”

Unlike many of the other San Gabriel Valley cities, which typically travel within the country, South El Monte spent more than $20,000 on trips to Mexico.

Most of that cost came from a $17,000 trip for four council members who traveled to Mexico from July 31 to Aug. 19, 2006, records show.

Documents only show city business from July 31 to Aug. 13. The six other days are unaccounted for, records show, although City Manager Anthony Ybarra said the council members met with sister city officials during that time.

No documents were provided.

From Aug. 2 to Aug. 8, the council members traveled to South El Monte ‘s sister city Gomez Palacio in Durango, Mexico. Then they attended a conference in Tuxtla Gutierrez from Aug. 9 to Aug. 13.

Council members said they visited another sister city, Miguel Hidalgo, from Aug. 13 until their departure on Aug. 19, but no documentation was provided for those activities.

Figueroa took other trips to Mexico throughout the year, costing another $3,000.

The council spent close to $10,000 sending five council members and the city manager in July to a conference in Orlando, Fla.

They also visited Washington, D.C., Indian Wells, near Palm Springs, and Las Vegas.

Figueroa said that as mayor, she has an obligation to travel more than her fellow council members, but she doesn’t always want to go.

She spent about $8,000 more than her colleagues.

“I didn’t want to go to Florida,” Figueroa said, “but you sometimes have to bite the bullet and do what is best for the city.”

Agui aga said the generous budget is not the only problem with the council members and the way they use public money to travel .

He also said that council members do not turn in receipts for their meals.

According to the city’s policy, $75 per day is distributed to council members in advance, and must be returned if unused and a receipt must be provided.

The cost covers items such as meals and transportation expenses , not including airfare.

According to the policy, they must provide receipts documenting how the advance was used, and must return the advance to the city treasury within five business days.

Records provided show no examples of per diem refunds.

“Usually, I spent it all,” Figueroa said. “And I don’t come home with anything because it is usually not enough.”

Council members were given a total of $5,625 to spend on food and other miscellaneous costs while in Mexico for the three-week trip.

Agui aga, however, said that $75 was more than enough.

“They did spend the money on food,” Agui aga said. “But there should have been some excess.”