In a tight city budget year that has included layoffs, Dunedin residents might look askance at their city manager spending several thousand dollars in public funds to host breakfasts and lunches in the last year. This issue, though, like most, requires some perspective.
Rob DiSpirito's bosses, the five city commissioners, aren't a bit upset by his use of tax dollars to buy food for himself and others during breakfast and lunch meetings. They describe him as one of the hardest working people they know, and they appreciate that instead of taking an hour for himself at lunchtime, he insists on using lunch as a productive part of the workday.
DiSpirito says that he has always worked through lunch - in part so he can make it home in time to see his young children before they go to sleep, and in part because lunch meetings are free of the distractions that occur at other times of the workday. He often meets with his department heads at lunchtime, picking up the tab for their lunches or ordering food in at City Hall because they are having to give up their lunch hour.
He also meets with business people over breakfast or lunch while trying to work deals that will benefit the city in some way. Records for his city purchasing card show he spent more than $2,000 for food in the last year. Some additional food purchases for in-house meetings were billed to another City Hall purchasing card. In Dunedin, the cards are provided for such expenses.
DiSpirito argues that millions of city dollars have been saved during these busy workdays. For example, he says that much of his work on the Weaver tract purchase was accomplished during lunchtime brainstorming or negotiating sessions. The city was able to acquire the 5-acre waterfront property for $7 million without the city paying a penny.
Many of his working lunches with staff in the last year have been spent combing the city budget, searching for ways to trim it without having to lay off a lot of city workers. DiSpirito and his staff were able to save all but a few jobs and maintain most city programs.
In his two years with the city, DiSpirito has established a reputation as a frugal manager. He even demonstrated his interest in saving money by eliminating the post of assistant city manager, which had been a salaried executive position under previous city managers. He replaced it with a lower-level position called "assistant to the city manager."
Considering the size of the city budget - $86 million for 2010 - the money DiSpirito spends on food is negligible. Nevertheless, since the St. Petersburg Times printed a story about DiSpirito's expenditures Wednesday, some critics have suggested he is insensitive to the plight of residents struggling to survive the bad economy. Those criticisms should be a signal to DiSpirito and his bosses that this is not an issue easily dismissed.
DiSpirito should consider holding some of these meetings, especially those with his staff, at other times of the day. Or if it is essential to meet during the lunch hour, he and staffers could sometimes bring their own lunches - a not-uncommon practice in the private sector.
Another way to save is to stop buying lunches for some city commissioners. DiSpirito meets regularly with each city commissioner for planning sessions, and some commissioners, especially those with full-time jobs, choose to meet over lunch. Surely, commissioners can afford to pay for their own lunches rather than relying on stressed taxpayers to do so.