City paying for employees to join clubs, organizations

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on January 18, 2013 at 12:02 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 18 at 2:50 PM

AUSTIN -- Videos on YouTube show Austin's Toastmasters can help you become a better public speaker.

“Conquering your fears or just learning how to speak in front of people,” said a member in a 2008 video explaining how the club can help its members. 

A KVUE Defenders investigation found Toastmasters is just one of dozens of organizations or clubs the City of Austin pays its employees to join.

There's no set policy. Each department sets its own budget for the cost, and supervisors determine if memberships are beneficial to the city.

The total bill to taxpayers -- at least $630,000 over the past two and a half years. KVUE found the expenses while reviewing city purchasing card transactions.

That total also includes $6,800 for nearly 100 city employees to join Toastmasters.

"Maybe we need to be hiring people with good communication skills, and if someone feels they are deficient in a certain way, they should pay for it themselves," argued David Orshalick, a long-time resident of Allendale neighborhood in North Austin, after reviewing the expenses.

City Human Resources Director Mark Washington contends the memberships are beneficial to the city. "Ultimately, it helps them because it allows them to do their job more efficiently and provide a great return in services to the taxpayer,” said Washington.

Other memberships include $9,100 spent on public relations associations, $2,600 in dues for a golf course superintendent's association, and a membership to the UT Club for City Manager Marc Ott.

The UT Club is a private restaurant located on the east stands of the University of Texas' DKR Memorial Stadium. Members can also join its golf and health clubs.

Ott is one of highest paid City of Austin employees, making $249,000 a year. Taxpayers pay for Ott's $636 annual UT Club membership.

Travis County Taxpayer Association's Roger Falk thinks memberships that influence policy can be good for the city, "but health club and exclusive dining club memberships, not so much."

Ott declined an on-camera interview. In a statement to the KVUE Defenders he wrote, "The UT Club provides us a site to host discussions and meet with business leaders, area stakeholders, and governmental officials in a venue outside of City Hall. I believe there is value in occasionally doing business in a setting that offers visitors direct insight into a substantial and treasured component of our community."

Orshalick believes the City of Austin needs to have more oversight on these memberships. "What you've identified is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Orshalick also thinks the expenses could have been better spent at other city departments, like the library system and parks and recreation.

He also says his property taxes will increase next year by at least three percent. "As we retire, we're probably going to get priced out. If taxes go up much more, they will easily exceed their retirement plan," he argued.

City officials argue that most memberships are needed, like the $83,000 in dues and fees the city paid to the American Waterworks Association for staff to keep up with water quality standards.

“The organization has to show some benefit to the city, in particularly to the employee’s job. So regardless of what the organization is, the end result is, does the membership and the training and development help to benefit the employee? And that’s what we evaluate," Washington said.

The membership dues the KVUE Defenders reviewed only include expenses paid for with city purchasing cards, not with petty cash or checks, so the total is likely higher than $630,000.

KVUE emailed and called all Austin City Council members and the mayor’s office to get their opinion about the expenses. None of them responded for an interview. Those who did respond directed KVUE back to the city manager’s office.

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