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Tamarac city commissioners now are allowing themselves to collectively spend up to $75,000 a year to travel — at $15,000 each — in their latest approved spending for personal discretion.
With this new move, they can travel within 100 miles of Tamarac City Hall and won’t have to prove what they spent taxpayer money on since they don’t have to document expenses or submit expenses for reimbursements.
Only one city leader from among the five commissioners voted against the new spending allowance, saying it couldn’t be justified.
“Where are we going? We have a travel budget, and most things are on Zoom,” said Mayor Michelle Gomez, who was the only no vote.
Budgeting for travel
Tamarac has already been paying elected officials $42,000 for a car allowance — at $8,400 each. No receipts or documentation is required to get the money for that either.
And Gomez said that’s double dipping because they are now being compensated twice for local travel.
Commissioners already share a pool of $55,000 for out-of-area travel, a fund that is unrivaled by other cities in South Florida.
Commissioners get an annual salary of $50,240, and the mayor earns $60,540. Other areas of compensation include a $50-a-month cellphone allowance. This fiscal year they also upped their “initiative” account to $125,000 — or $25,000 a year each — for public purpose-related expenses such as mailers or district events.
But that too is a problem, Gomez said, contending the personal expenses could be used by city leaders on projects to help get themselves get re-elected, on the taxpayer dime. So she voted against the addition of the new $25,000 account during September’s vote.
She said the money would be better used in other city departments, such as social services.
Gomez said it’s poor timing for increased spending.
“I think it looks very bad,” she said. “We have a higher responsibility to our residents. They get affected by budget decisions we make.”
Commissioner Mike Gelin defended the decision to approve the new pot of money for local travel, although he said he didn’t plan on using it. He said the car allowance is intended to cover gas and wear and tear. But the local travel budget could be used in instances “where it may be necessary to stay at a hotel depending on what time the meeting ends and begins on the next morning.”
Gelin, who said he has been financially prudent when it came to lowering the property tax rate, said he has no plans to travel in 2021 or 2022, but “I cannot predict what happens beyond that.”
Vice Mayor Elvin Villalobos and Commissioner Debra Placko declined to comment about their latest votes to approve more money for travel, both referring questions to the city administration. Commissioner Marlon Bolton did not respond to email, and could not be reached on his cellphone.
Tamarac’s spending has drawn scrutiny before.
In 2017 the city gave its elected officials $1,500 each to spend annually for expenses such as special events, parking at conferences, and meals with constituents.
And the ballooning travel budget also in 2017 led city administrators to propose raising the amount of money to $100,000 to account for all the travel that was being planned. City leaders turned down that proposal, but still spent about $64,000 in taxpayer funds that year on travel.
In the past two fiscal years, which covers expenses made from October 2018 through September 2020, records show the City Commission collectively spent more than $87,000 on travel throughout Florida, as well as conferences and conventions in Michigan, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Former Commissioner Julie Fishman spent the most in the two-year time period at $27,610 for 18 trips. She also spent the most on any one trip from among the commission, spending $3,785 for attending the National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C. in March 2020. Gelin spent $3,373 to attend the same event.
Gelin’s spending was a second to Fishman during the two fiscal years at $26,295 for 14 trips.
Travel spending isn’t allowed in some neighboring cities, including Lighthouse Point. But some cities do offer it, and Tamarac’s spending outpaces the region.
Boca Raton: The mayor and council members each get a $450-a-month auto allowance. The council also shares an annual fund of $7,900 for education, training and travel.
Delray Beach: The commissioners each get a $500-a-month car allowance. The commission also shares a $13,400 travel budget.
Weston: City leaders share a $3,000 annual budget for conferences and seminars and travel to those events. There is no car allowance.
Hollywood: There is no car allowance, and the mayor and commission share an $18,000 training budget, which could include travel.
North Lauderdale: Commissioners each get an annual $4,200 budget for expenses, and they share a pot of $8,000 a year for travel.
Oakland Park: There is no car allowance, and city leaders share a $20,000 travel budget.
Parkland: The car allowance is $3,600 a year, and the travel budget is $1,000 a year per person.
Fort Lauderdale: The mayor has an $8,250 annual expense account and the commission has $7,650. They each have a $6,040 travel budget as well.
Pompano Beach: The commission shares a $17,260 travel budget.