Despite a tightening budget and continuing citywide layoffs, Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito charged the city thousands of dollars over the past year for breakfast and lunch meetings with other city leaders.
More than a third of DiSpirito's $7,500 in expenses, shown in records provided by the city, went toward meals shared between DiSpirito, city commissioners and department heads. Nearly $2,000 also was charged for working lunches by City Hall administrative staff.
DiSpirito said the lunches allow a "tremendous amount of productivity for the nominal expense involved." Projects like the Weaver property purchase, he said, stemmed from meals paid out of the city budget.
"They're all work meetings with staff: economic development needs, visiting delegations, working staff retreats, job candidates, negotiations," DiSpirito said. "Sometimes those things are best done in that kind of setting."
But when compared with expenses from nearby cities, verified by city clerks, DiSpirito's charges stand out.
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne, who manages a city with three times the population of Dunedin, spent $1,600 less than DiSpirito. According to records from Largo, Pinellas Park, Plant City, Tarpon Springs and Temple Terrace, DiSpirito spent more than all of their city managers combined.
DiSpirito called charging business lunches to the city "a totally common practice" used in Dunedin since before his hire in 2007, though accounted for in different ways at other cities.
"One way or another, they're either turning in receipts or using a P-Card or buying food in the kitchen," he said. "They're still paying money for that."
P-Cards are purchasing cards that can pay for city-related expenses. Dunedin has given P-Cards to department heads, directors and senior administrative assistants.
Some of the cards prohibit spending at restaurants. But DiSpirito's card, according to city records, provides for a $5,000 monthly credit and allows for any purchase.
In the past two years, city officials have spent more than $60,000 with the cards, buying everything from fliers and flowers to books and software. Conferences, seminars and hotel stays also are paid for with P-Cards, as they are with other city officials from across Tampa Bay.
DiSpirito's expenses include city planning books, a parking ticket, a cell phone case, about $2,000 in dues to professional organizations and $1,800 for storage. As part of his contract, DiSpirito also earns $500 a month as a car allowance.
His food expenses range from $5 in gas station food for a late presentation meeting to three $90 lunches with other city staff on the city budget and handrails.
Many of the most popular eateries, like Flanagan's Irish Pub and Cafe Alfresco, are within walking distance of Dunedin City Hall. Others, like Country Boy Family Restaurant, Marguerite's Deli and Umberto's of Long Island, are a short drive away.
"My daily work habit is to work through lunch. I don't go home, I don't go to the park and read a book, I normally don't take a break," DiSpirito said. "It's definitely one of the more productive work hours."
Commissioners defended DiSpirito's use of city money, calling him a dedicated hard worker who rarely takes time off.
"When I go with him, it's an hour-and-a-half lunch meeting," said Commissioner David Carson. "It's never enough time. I need another hour."
Carson admitted he has felt uneasy having taxpayers buy him lunch, but added that paying for the business meetings is a "good investment" compared with what the city gets in return.
"If it turned out that was the most convenient time for the people involved, so be it," said Vice Mayor Julie Scales. "If he's bringing revenue to the city and saving money for the city and that involves a sandwich, that's fine by me."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.
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City manager expenses over the last year:
Rob DiSpirito, Dunedin: $7,560.56 ($2,843.74 spent on food)
Bill Horne, Clearwater: $5,919.75 ($79.72 spent on food)
Michael Gustafson, Pinellas Park: $1,875.65 ($234.27 spent on food)
Norton Craig, Largo: $1,408.83 (all spent on fuel and maintenance for city-provided vehicle)
David R. Sollenberger, Plant City: $1,389.05 ($22 spent on food)
Mark G. LeCouris, Tarpon Springs: $1,364.76 ($65.30 spent on food)
Kim D. Leinbach, Temple Terrace: $1,337.63 ($157.50 spent on food)