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Council holds the line on travel

SEMINOLE — Council members have twice refused to give extra money to council member Patricia Plantamura, who spent all her travel allowance in the first two months of the fiscal year.

Their reasoning: Council members, whose main duty is to set the overall city budget and tax rate, know how much they have given themselves to spend on travel each year and should plan accordingly. They should not raid other items in the Seminole budget.

"You're allocated this money, you spend it and when the cookie jar is empty, it's not getting replaced and I think that's the way it should be," council member Dan Hester said.

Council member Leslie Waters agreed, saying, "I think as councilors we have to take our own personal responsibility for taxpayer money of $2,500. None of these conferences, none of them, are mandatory. We can go to them this quarter, next quarter or next year. And that should be all part of the planning process."

Plantamura said she was only doing what had been done before. In the past, she said, other council members have been given more money when their's ran out.

All she was asking for, she said, was the amount of money that she had not spent during the preceding fiscal year. The money would have been spent then if she had been signed up to attend a training session during the last fiscal year rather than this. The Seminole city staff, she said, was at fault for not signing her up to attend that event.

"I'm not being a crazy spender with my money," Plantamura said.

Plantamura was elected in March after a campaign in which she promised, among other things, to keep a close eye on city spending. Since then, she has several times questioned the amount of City Manager Frank Edmunds' salary — $121,615 annually — and even questioned on Wednesday the cost of mailing a copy of a city resolution regarding dog tethering to all other Florida governments. It will basically cost nothing because the resolution will be e-mailed.

When Plantamura took office in mid March, she was given $2,500 — the amount other council members received for a full fiscal year — for travel. During the next 6 1/2 months, she spent $1,367 to attend the Suncoast and Florida Leagues of Cities meetings. That left her with a balance of $1,133 on Sept. 30, the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year. State law prohibits that excess from being carried over into the new fiscal year.

On Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, Plantamura and the other council members each received another $2,500 for travel expenses for the entire year. Mayor Jimmy Johnson received $4,500.

By Nov. 30, Plantamura had spent the entire $2,500 to attend the National League of Cities meeting in San Antonio, Texas, during November. She also went to the Institute for Elected Municipal Officials training session in Boca Raton during October.

But there are other events that Plantamura wants to attend. Nothing prevents her from paying for them herself, but instead she asked other council members to give her some of the unspent money in their travel accounts. Plantamura wanted $2,500 more, which would have given her a total of $5,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Council members have done that before. A few years ago, they transferred money from the accounts of council members who had not traveled much to Thom Barnhorn, who had spent all his travel money before the end of the fiscal year. Barnhorn, who is running for re-election, is in a similar fix now. He has spent all but about $250 of his 2009-10 travel allocation, but he has not asked for more tax money.

Although the rest of the council gave $688 to Barnhorn in 2008, they refused to do so for Plantamura when she asked last December.

Plantamura tried again Wednesday. She asked at a workshop whether the council would authorize the transfer of $2,500 from the contingency budget — used for unexpected expenditures like storm damage — to her travel account so she could attend more meetings and conventions.

The council again refused.

The council's decision was no surprise to Plantamura, who had said, "even if you say no to me I won't feel offended. It won't make me happy."

And, if turned down, Plantamura said she would support such requests from other council members in the future.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Council holds the line on travel 01/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 6:56pm]
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