There’s been a lot of talk around town about the way some Orlando City Commissioners are spending public tax dollars as their own personal slush fund, despite the fact the City Council raised property taxes and cut public services to address an ongoing budget crisis. The matter is becoming a hot button topic among the community, but for once it seems to be turning into a hot button issue for the City Council as well.
On top of all that, it is also time for the Orlando City Council to pass the budget. There’s no better time to take an in-depth look at the records and spending habits of all City Commissioners.
It is true that each Orlando City Commissioner has an operating budget of close to $100,000 to spend “on their districts.” Commissioners Hill and Ings are currently asking for an increased district expense account totaling $125,000 per year, and Mayor Buddy Dyer is supportive of the request.
There are no clear rules or regulations on exactly how the Commissioners can spend the public tax dollars – and that’s just part of the problem. So where does all this public taxpayer money end up?
In a sweeping review of all expenses made by each Orlando City Commissioner from June 2014 through the beginning of August 2015, I have obtained records to provide additional sunshine to the use of public tax dollars. Residents and voters can now judge each Commissioner’s expenditures over the last year and determine for themselves if the spending is right or wrong.
Here’s how Orlando City Commissioners are spending your tax dollars (detailed expense reports provided below for each Orlando Commissioner):
- Commissioner Jim Gray in District 1 did not seem to spend much over the course of the last year. Some notable expenses which are comparable to other Commissioners’ expenses included almost $6,000 throughout the entire year in charges for food, office supplies and other materials. The two largest charges in this category for Gray were $783 for food at the Amway Center which processed in December 2014 and a nearly $500 charge for food at the Amway Center which processed in January 2015. Gray also used his project account to spend $1,250 for parks repair and maintenance in District 1. He also spent $782 on the Jazz on a Green event in Lake Nona.
- Commissioner Tony Ortiz in District 2 has also used his expense account sparingly compared to others. Commissioner Ortiz spent a few thousand dollars in charges for food, office supplies and other materials, with one of the largest charges being $625 for 25 tickets to be donated for youth to attend the Onyx Awards this year. Ortiz also spent about $6,350 as a contribution to the Englewood Neighborhood Center for violin programs for children and made a $5,000 contribution to Dover Manor HOA for a Gaston Foster Road neighborhood wall.
- Commissioner Robert Stuart in District 3 primarily spends his funds on community projects. Stuart used $12,600 to provide a crosswalk at Rio Grande Avenue and Bryn Mawr, which processed this summer. He also spent $4,500 for Blue Jacket Park repairs and maintenance earlier in the year. Commissioner Stuart did use about $3,000 in funds for donations to community groups, like $1,000 for the Downtown College Park Partnership and $500 to the Friends of Leu Gardens to support an art exhibit. Stuart did donate $100 to the Edgewater High School football program, while opting to donate $200 from his city account to the University of Florida Alumni Association as well.
- Commissioner Patty Sheehan in District 4 spent about $10,000 from her expense account on “other professional services” which include donations to groups the Commissioner personally supports. Sheehan donated $1,500 to the Libby’s Legacy Breast Cancer Foundation earlier this year, $500 for tickets to Maitland Art, $1,800 for the American Lung Association, $1,600 to the Hope and Help Center and $2,000 to the SPCA of Central Florida. All good causes, but questions could be raised about the way Commissioners use tax dollars to donate or sponsor groups for which they would normally use personal funds to show support. Sheehan spent less than $1,500 on food, office supplies and other materials, much lower than the other Commissioners. The largest expenses in this category were a $250 purchase on schoolsin.com and another $242 purchase on mylocker.net, seemingly for school supplies or equipment. Sheehan spent $2,900 for Thanksgiving turkeys, but purchased them through Citrus Restaurant according to the expenses and she spent $2,500 on food from TooJay’s, which was listed in another category.
- Commissioner Regina Hill in District 5 has been one of the Orlando Commissioners singled out for high spending. Commissioner Hill spent more than $25,000 on food, office supplies or other materials in her first year in office. These charges include $35 entrée dinners on multiple occasions when no business meetings or official business could be provided by the City Records Department. There are other frequent visits to the Miller Ale House, Lee & Rick’s Oyster Bar and Pho Saigon. There are also thousands of dollars spent at Wal-Marts around Orange County, including for gift cards Hill claimed they were used to pay caterers at her Florida Classic event, although no taxes were paid on their employment. Hill also spent another $1,500 on food for the Florida Classic event she held last winter as well as $1,400 at Restaurant Depot. Hill also included a $2,000 expense to the Central Florida Urban League, marked as “other materials and supplies.” Commissioner Hill charged the city for “Fleet Motor” vehicle services when a city-owned car was being used by her office, apparently without permission by Hill’s aide. There is also a $563 charge for Glamour Shots for Commissioner Hill, which processed in December 2014. Hill spent almost $3,000 for event fees, registration and parking costs for herself, including charging taxpayers for her Dr. Phillips Center valet parking and parking costs at the Gaylord Palms and Waldorf Hilton. Hill even charged some of her toll costs to taxpayers. Some of the event costs cover when Hill attended a Florida Democratic Party conference and National League of Cities conference after being elected. Like Commissioner Samg Ings, Hill also charged almost $2,000 for her cell phone and her aide’s cell phone bills to be paid. Hill also provided about $3,000 in donations to local churches, including $1,000 to the Experience Christian Center, $800 to Majestic Life Institute, $500 to Livingston Street Church of God and $250 to Bethel Missionary Baptist Church as well as to the Impact Church Orlando. There could be questions about public tax dollars being given to churches no matter the cause, and what these churches or pastors may do to return the favor. There are also about $10,000 in charges for event tickets and sponsorships, among other notable expenses.
- Commissioner Sam Ings in District 6 is the worst offender when it comes to big spending from his taxpayer-funded expense account. Among the notable expenses, Ings spent a whopping $30,000 for food, office supplies and other materials since 2014. There are thousands of dollars in catering costs, including more than $3,000 paid to College Park Foods to cater two events in District 6 last year. Ings also pays for his cell phone and his aide’s phone like Commissioner Hill, with Ings’ total costing taxpayers $2,200. He also charged around $10,000 for events, travel, parking and conference fees similar to Hill. None of the other Commissioners use taxpayer funds to cover travel, parking and hotel costs similar to Ings and Hill. Ings also contributed $2,500 to the Experience Christian Center last year, raising similar questions as to how residents feel about tax dollars being sent directly to a church. Ings also spends big on events in his district, including $10,000 on last year’s District 6 Annual Seniors Thanksgiving Concert. Did you get an invite? Ings’ expense records below date back to January 2014, providing about five months of expenses more than the other Commissioners.
There are also other costs to taxpayers not included in their expense accounts. For instance, each City Commissioner is also assigned a “police liaison” officer from the Orlando Police Department, which costs taxpayers for the salary and overtime charged. These liaison officers typically drive Commissioners around the city and attend events with or on behalf of the Commissioner, costing around half a million dollars a year from the OPD budget for six liaison officers. One City Commissioner even spent more than all the other Commissioners combined on police liaison overtime costs, causing some to raise concern of the need for such an expense.
Recently, due in part to stories originating from my public records requests to the City of Orlando spending and articles on this site, there is increased pressure on Commissioners to explain the spending. Three Commissioners – Robert Stuart, Jim Gray and Tony Ortiz – are even becoming vocally outspoken about their fellow Commissioners’ spending habits. Stuart and Gray even held a one-on-one meeting to discuss ways to possibly reign in Commissioner spending. Two Commissioners are even ready to vote against raising the Commissioners’ budget to allow others to spend more money, according to WFTV Channel 9 News.
But Mayor Dyer has announced he will support an increase in the City Commissioner district budgets to $125,000 per year, up from $90,000 this year. “With the 17.7% tax increase on the backs of the hard-working people of Orlando, Dyer should be ashamed of himself,” responded Dyer’s mayoral challenger Paul Paulson.
At the end of the day, Commissioners should be able to access some funds for community projects or parks in their district or for uses promoting the public good. However, for any Commissioner to claim these personal expense accounts are the solution for deep-rooted policy problems and ongoing social issues in individual districts is unacceptable.
It is time for Commissioners to raise those concerns publicly at City Council, proposing new ordinances and voting to allocate necessary resources to address any serious issues through policy and accountability. That is the role of the City Commissioner. This is the only way to reach real solutions. Commissioners’ dinners, travel, parking, contributions to personally selected groups and even donated food will never be the long-term answers Orlando needs.
So, should Orlando City Commissioners get an increase in their expense account budgets?
You can decide after reviewing the charges taxpayers are covering for the Commissioners yourself:
Is the spending by each City Commissioner justified? Are these expenses acceptable?