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April 17, 2018 7:01 pm
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Five Surprise employees spent $15,500 on a trip to Toronto, including a four-star hotel stay, late last summer.

That stay and others reviewed by The Arizona Republic exceeded a federal government guideline for lodging costs. The expense limits that are in place for federal government employees can be used as a guideline for other government employees.

Economic Development Director Jeanine Jerkovic and four employees in the department were in Canada for the International Economic Development Council, where economic developers network and strategize how to attract businesses to their cities. 

Jerkovic said the trip allowed staff to market Surprise while receiving advice from experts on what Canadian businesses look for in a city. The group also gave the city three awards for economic development projects.

Taxpayers paid $276 per night for Jerkovic’s six-night stay at the Grand Hotel & Suites, a four-star hotel near the conference in downtown Toronto. The federal maximum at the time for Toronto was $181 per night.

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It’s unclear if the others in the group, including then-Economic Development Manager Mike Hoover, paid the same rate. Their expense forms lumped hotel and airfare costs under one line item. All stayed at the same hotel between four and six days.

Jerkovic said other nearby events, such as the Invictus Games and the Toronto Film Festival, limited hotel options and likely drove up prices. 

“We went with the … most economical and safest option, but there were very few choices,” Jerkovic said. 

City officials say they try to stay at hotels near the conferences they attend. Not everyone agrees with that premise. The director of an Arizona watchdog groupsays that’s not a valid reason to stay at a high-priced hotel unless transportation costs would exceed the difference. 

The state’s travel policy sets maximum lodging rates similar to the federal government. Surprise, as well as metro Phoenix cities including Glendale, Peoria and Scottsdale, don’t adhere strictly to those guidelines. 

Travel records for Surprise elected officials, city managers, the city attorney and economic developers obtained by The Arizona Republic show four-star hotel stays on multiple occasions in the past year. Nearly 77 percent of the 39 trips among this group of employees and politicians exceeded the federal maximum lodging rate, a third of them by $20 or more per night. This excludes eight trips where the nightly rate wasn’t available.

But three trips, including last summer’s Toronto visit, were nearly $100 above the federal limit. A trip that included the mayor was even higher. 

Reasons for choosing high-priced hotels

Mayor Sharon Wolcott and two city administrators exceeded the federal maximum lodging guidelines by $133 per night during a trip to Washington, D.C., last spring.

They spent two nights at a four-star Westin hotel a mile from the White House. The hotel bill was $2,582. 

Each of the three rooms cost about $375 per night plus tax. The federal maximum at the time was $242 per night. 

Wolcott said they were there to “obtain transportation and transit support for the city.”

The mayor said the city is still lobbying for a slice of federal money in President Donald Trump’s infrastructure bill. She said she’d rather not have to travel to Washington, D.C., to do so but said a physical presence was necessary. 

Wolcott didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding the price of the hotel.

Councilman Patrick Duffy stayed at a four-star hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, for several days while attending the National League of Cities City Summit in November. The nightly rate of the hotel near the conference was $229 when the maximum federal rate was $127.

Senior Management Analyst Gloria Bianco, who assists the City Manager’s Office, said she often books rooms at the hotels hosting the conferences for the safety of female employees. 

“We want to keep our employees as safe as possible,” Bianco said. “So we keep them as close to where the conference is at.”

Assistant City Manager Nicole Lance, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with the mayor, said employees try to “economize” by fitting as many meetings as possible into their stays.

City Manager Bob Wingenroth conceded the city probably paid more to stay at hotels closer to conferences, but said he was OK with the current policy.  

How much is too much?

Diane Brown, executive director at the Phoenix-based consumer watchdog organization Arizona Public Interest Research Group, said public employees should ensure they’re spending taxpayer money in the best interest of the city.

“To best protect taxpayers, government officials in Arizona should be frugal — not lavish — when it comes to booking hotels and other travel expenses,” Brown said. 

Brown said it could be acceptable for a government employee to stay at a more expensive hotel if traveling from a cheaper hotel farther away from the venue was costlier, but luxury hotels should not be the standard.  

“To have a government official stay in a high-end hotel and to have other high-priced travel expenses is not in the best interests of the taxpayer,” she said.

Daily allowances

Beyond hotel stays, city employees in Surprise and other metro Phoenix cities receive daily allowances to cover meals and incidentals when traveling. 

For example, the per diem rate in Surprise, Scottsdale, Glendale and Peoria is based on federal guidelines. 

The rates vary based on the city of travel. The Toronto trip included $119 per day for each staffer. The Washington, D.C. trip included a daily allowance of $69 for each city leader.

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Travel policies in Surprise, Peoria, Glendale and Scottsdale require no itemized receipts for meals or other incidental spending, or that any remaining money go back into city coffers. 

Peoria allows city employees to choose between getting a per diem rate or filing receipts for reimbursement. In Glendale, only elected officials have the option — city employees can only use the daily allowance. 

How much does city spend on travel?

The city as a whole spent $675,483 on travel and training in 2017, according to records The Arizona Republic obtained under Arizona Public Records Law. A city spokeswoman said the city lumps travel and training costs under the same budget item.

Police spent the most on travel and training at nearly $142,500, followed by the Water Resources Department at nearly $79,000 and the Economic Development Department at almost $71,000.

A Surprise spokeswoman said police travel expenses often pertain to investigations and training. 

Reach the reporter at 602-444-2474 or perry.vandell@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @PerryVandell

2017 Mayor and City Council travel costs 

Some Surprise City Council members represented Surprise in other cities more than others. Here’s how their travel expenses broke down in 2017.

Sharon Wolcott: $6,932.

Roland Winters: $6,188.

Todd Tande: $3,429.

John Williams*: $2,731.

Patrick Duffy*: $2,575.

Ken Remley: $1,146.

Jim Hayden*: $1,146.

Skip Hall: $1,011.

*Served partial term

Source: City of Surprise. 

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