City of Sur­prise trav­el­ers stay at four-star ho­tels

Lodg­ing rates ex­ceed fed­eral cost guide­lines

The Arizona Republic - - Valley&State - Perry Van­dell

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.

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.

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.

Diane Brown, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Phoenixbased con­sumer watch-dog 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.

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