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THE REAL SCOOP ON DUNEDIN'S LUNCH TAB

My city commissioners and I sincerely appreciated the Sept. 10 editorial (No free lunch? City often got tab's worth), since it provided all of the context that was missing from the Sept. 9 news story, City manager's tally: $7,560. The editorial was thoughtful, fair and offered modest suggestions worthy of serious consideration. We are glad it cleared up the erroneous impressions left by the news story's headlines, graphics box and much of the text. However, out of my duty to serve my staff and the residents of Dunedin, I feel it is important for all concerned to hear from me, personally.

First, out of Dunedin's $86 million budget, the total charged to the city manager account for food last year was $2,132. This is a centrally-budgeted account that covered the expenses of 40 other people, both employees and non-employees alike. The rest of the $7,560 was budgeted as non-food purchases, mostly for dues and memberships in professional organizations, work-related books and periodicals, phone equipment, one in-state training conference and reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses.

Additionally, this account is vetted and approved every year through a public hearing process. All expenses meet IRS business expense standards and are audited annually by an independent CPA firm, with no comments of concern raised. Unfortunately, most of these not-so-minor details, although provided, did not appear in the story.

I think the most important question you can ask of me is, "Are we serving a public purpose with every dollar of taxpayer money we spend?" If I could not answer yes, then I would not spend it. Here's how we spent the $2,132 in food expenses:

Many noon appointments occur to pursue economic development leads, work with major employers to foster expansion projects and job retention, seek out large financial sponsorships, and collaborate with all levels of government to bring more funds to Dunedin. Each one is a verifiable work meeting tied to my appointment calendar. These meetings played a large part in attracting major dollar investments to this community (Fenway Hotel re-birth $22 million, Gateway/Pizzuti commercial project $24 million, Weaver waterfront park grants $7.5 million, and continuing efforts to market the 24-acre former Nielsen site).

When they reach fruition, these projects will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in new tax revenue to provide basic services and hopefully avoid future employee layoffs and tax rate increases. It was in one such meeting, over two $6 hoagies in a downtown sandwich shop, that the general manager of our Coca-Cola plant and I agreed to a deal whereby his company will graciously partner with us by donating $135,000 for city park maintenance. Not a bad return on the investment.

The internal appointments that we hold include training sessions, formal meeting preparations with city commissioners, and periodic meetings with employees in their work environment to listen to their ideas and suggestions. Many times, I and my talented staff must work through our lunch hours on short notice and during our personal time to achieve an aggressive agenda set by our commission and Dunedin residents. They have saved this community millions with their suggestions and collaboration. Occasionally sending out for a sandwich does not seem unreasonable to me, especially since these folks are getting no increase in pay this coming year and are doing the quintessential "more with less" for the city they so love.

Dunedin has the second lowest tax rate among comparably-sized and larger cities in Pinellas County and there will be no tax rate increase next year. These meetings have been instrumental in the city achieving cuts of $7.5 million over three years. Over this time, there has been no tax rate increase, no use of reserve funds, and virtually no service reductions.

I was hired to forge new collaborations, partnerships and alliances for the city and to market and promote Dunedin. Especially in hard times like these, residents expect us to reach out to investors in our community, as we have. We take this approach in the hopes that we can continue to provide the same services that you enjoy and rely upon. Residents also expect city staff to meet internally and find efficiencies in our budget.

Thus, Dunedin's return on that nominal expenditure of $2,132 for meals covering 41 different people, in comparison to the millions of dollars saved and millions in new resources found, is significant and squarely in the public interest.

Robert DiSpirito is city manager of Dunedin.

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