AUSTIN -- How would you like an all-expense, five-day paid trip to Amsterdam? A KVUE Defenders investigation found taxpayers foot the bill for several City of Austin employees to recently visit the Dutch capital. KVUE Defender Andy Pierrotti uncovered the expenses and explains why the city says it was worth the cost.
Amsterdam is home to fields of stunning tulips, 60 miles of beautiful canals, and the world's first library of the future.
“Which is considered to be the largest library in Europe," explains Bert Lumbreras, Austin’s assistant city manager. He and five other city employees spent five days in the Netherlands to check out Amsterdam's futuristic library. The trip cost $23,147 in airfare and accommodations.
The city contends the trip was all work and no play. Lumbreras says they went to gather ideas on how to make Austin's future library a world class facility.
"So, it was our intent to look at the facility, how it operated, and how it was staffed, and the use of technology," explained Lumbreras.
Bert Lumbreras - Assistant City Manager
Greg Canally - Deputy Chief Financial Officer
Brenda Branch - Director, Austin Public Library
Toni Lambert - Assistant Director, Austin Public Library
Cindy Jordan - Project Manager, Public Works Department
John Gillum - Facilities Process Manager, Austin Public Library
The trip included $2,221 in meals, guided tours of two libraries and taxi fares, plus, four nights at the Double Tree Hotel for each employee, costing about $244 a night.
"It was actually next door to the library, and we had an opportunity to visit the facility twice," said Lumbreras.
According to TripAdvisor.com, the KVUE Defenders found the city could have saved money on less expensive hotels within walking distance to the library. Some hotels offered rates $100 less a night.
"Nothing substitute’s boots on the ground, but the question you have to ask yourself is, did we have to take all of these people?" argued Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of Public Citizen, a taxpayer watchdog group in Austin.
"We have this miraculous thing called Skype, and today you can sit at your computer and take a tour of the new library, have conversations with the people who are in charge of the library," said Smith.
Why not visit innovative libraries in the United States? According to a 2011 list of the 35 best libraries in the world, nine in the U.S. made the cut.
"Well, there's only one library for the future in the world, and it's in Amsterdam," said Lumbreras.
The city broke ground on the new library in May. The site is off Cesar Chavez St., across from Lady Bird Lake, next to Shoal Creek. Voters approved $90 million in bonds to build it five years ago, but it's now estimated to cost $120 million, complete with a restaurant, auditorium and a butterfly garden.
The City squeezed the additional $30 million from other revenue sources.
"The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Is this a wise investment?’ It's an open question for the voters to decide," said Smith.
While Smith recognizes the trip’s cost is small compared to the library’s total cost, he says it shows the City needs to do a better job finding innovative ways to cut costs.
So, what did the City learn from its trip to Amsterdam? Lumbreras said it got ideas for its future restaurant, book store and how much staff they'll need to operate.
Austin's new library is scheduled to be complete fall 2015.