January 25, 2006 - Editor's note: This is the first story in a five-part series examining the spending habits of Marana public officials. The EXPLORER reviewed records of the town's travel and training expenses for the last five fiscal years. The newspaper also reviewed bank statements and receipts to see how Marana officials are using their town-issued credit cards to spend taxpayer dollars.

Marana public officials spent more than $200,000 traveling the country for conferences and specialized training seminars last fiscal year - thousands more than the amount spent by three other municipalities of comparable size.

Marana's travel and training expenses have grown significantly in the last five years, almost doubling between fiscal years 2000-01 and 2004-05. The taxpayers' annual costs for those trips have jumped from $104,749 to $201,420, surpassing Oro Valley and soaring high above Buckeye and Casa Grande.

In nearly every department - with the exception of a few such as finance and legal - Marana is now outspending other Arizona governments of its size when it comes to travel and training. Within the last year, Marana officials have either booked flights or taken trips to Honolulu, Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Orlando, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Marana spent $32,541 more than Oro Valley for travel and training in the last two fiscal years, $192,077 more than Casa Grande and $135,431 more than Buckeye. Until Marana ramped up its travel habits a few years ago, Oro Valley was easily the biggest spender of the four. Marana's 18 departments and 300 employees are now outspending Oro Valley's 20 departments and 350 employees.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said it didn't surprise him to learn that Marana's expenses have risen to the top of the list. That's because he's made a conscious effort to ensure the town's leaders have the expertise needed to transition Marana from a small farm town to the large urban city its leaders expect it to become.

"Overall, I don't think our travel and training expenses are out of line, considering the growth that our community has had, the issues we're facing and the necessity to get our employees the appropriate training to handle the growth that is here," he said. "If we're going to develop as a quality community and continue to provide a high level of services, we need to have people trained."

In the same time that Marana's travel and training expenses almost doubled, Oro Valley's steadily grew about 20 percent from $159,641 to $191,767. Casa Grande remained fairly consistent, spending about $104,185 last fiscal year, while the quickly growing town of Buckeye saw its expenses increase to $165,724. Those figures for Buckeye and Casa Grande do not include the training costs associated with their municipal fire departments, which Marana and Oro Valley do not have.

"Marana is growing so quickly that a lot of this training and stuff is absolutely necessary within the departments, because there are things we don't know how to do or new equipment we don't know how to use," said Mayor Ed Honea, adding that the Marana Town Council supports the growing emphasis on travel and training.

While Marana's increased spending habits may be the intention of its leaders, it appears the town's expenses also have risen due to lesser-planned circumstances.

Records released by the town show that half of Marana's departments broke their travel and training budgets last fiscal year, while another five departments overspent the amount approved in their budgets at least once in the last five years.

Some departments, such as the town manager's office, appear to be habitually breaking their travel and training budgets year after year.

In each of the last three years, Reuwsaat's office has budgeted $8,500 for travel and training. However, its year-end expenditures are closer to twice that amount and almost triple on one occasion in 2003-04, when the town manager's tab reached $23,562, partly due to a costly retreat to Prescott.

In the last five fiscal years, the Marana town manager's office has been responsible for about $70,110 of the town's travel and training expenses. Comparatively, Oro Valley's town manager spent $26,622, and Casa Grande's spent $46,085.

Marana's mayor and council, who stay within their budget most years, spent more than $19,000 for travel and training in 2001-02 after budgeting $12,000.

The town's Development Services Administration has spent double it's allotted budget for travel and training each of the past two fiscal years.

"If you go down to Development Services, you'll see a very young staff. It's an investment to train good young people and give them the tools to do their job, but keep them here also," Reuwsaat said.

The Marana town clerk's office has spent $18,408 in the last five fiscal years, compared to Oro Valley's $13,579, Casa Grande's $15,868 and Buckeye's $7,351.

Marana Town Clerk Jocelyn Bronson said she's been on the executive board of the Arizona Municipal Clerks Association for the past three years, which has required some extra traveling. However, she said, Marana's expenses are probably higher because of the emphasis she places on training.

"I'm a very big proponent of education, and I encourage my staff to get training related to their professional development as much as we can afford to," she said, adding that one of her employees is currently working on a municipal clerk's certification, which requires three years of education.

"In my mind, I don't feel like there's been any frivolous spending or unnecessary travel and training," she said.

Charlie Mangum, director of the Marana Regional Airport, has overspent his travel and training budget each of the past two fiscal years. In 2003-04, he spent $8,896 when only $1,500 was budgeted. His travel and training line item increased to $4,950 last year, though he broke his budget again by spending $9,359.

Each town department has a travel and training line item included in its budget, which is publicly approved by the town council at the start of each fiscal year. The figures presented to the council are intended to be as close as possible to what the department will spend that year.

Reuwsaat said he didn't see the overspending as a problem because the town's departments can draw funds from other areas of the budget when extra money is needed. Generally speaking, as long as they stay within their overall budgets, department officials have free rein to overspend the council-approved travel and training line item without his approval, he said.

"As long as it's a reasonable expenditure and there's budget capacity in the department, I don't see those things," he said. "There isn't an approval process."

Reuwsaat, who's office spent more than $55,000 for travel and training in the last three fiscal years despite budgeting less than half that amount, said he plans to increase the line item for his department next year. Because of the growth Marana is experiencing, it's hard to predict how much each department will spend each year, he said, though he sounds certain the numbers will only continue to rise.

Reuwsaat, who makes more than $138,000 a year thanks to more than $25,000 in raises this past year, said he plans to take more frequent trips to Phoenix and Washington, D.C., making his face known to state and federal lawmakers.

"We're just so busy here with all the growth that, for me, it's been hard to leave home when there's so much I've been taking care of here locally," he said. "Now that I'm getting our senior staff in line, I will probably be doing more travel to D.C., to Phoenix, and so forth. I think that will bring investment to the community, jobs to the community, grants and those kinds of things."

The Marana Police Department is one area in which the town has placed a stronger emphasis on travel and training in recent years. The department's travel and training budget has quadrupled in the last five years, going from $15,000 to $60,000. Despite the significant increase in budget size, the growing department still overspent on travel and training by about $1,877 last fiscal year.

Marana's police department spent $61,877 for travel and training in 2004-05, compared to Oro Valley's $48,614, Casa Grande's $28,913 and Buckeye's $68,822. Buckeye spent an average of just $14,266 in each of the previous four fiscal years.

Marana regularly sends its police officers to stay in Las Vegas casino hotels while attending conferences and seminars that are above and beyond the training required by law. Reuwsaat said town officials and council members decided about four years ago to increase specialized training in the police department after it became apparent that the department was lacking in certain areas.

"They're a growing department and, more than any department, we've been adding more police positions than anything else over the last five years," he said. "That was a conscious direction to help get them better equipped to do their job."

Marana's parks and recreation department has spent $76,807 in the last five fiscal years, compared to Oro Valley's $34,205, Casa Grande's $29,218 and Buckeye's $11,406.

Parks Director Ron Smith, who has taken trips to San Diego, San Antonio and Houston, has regularly attended both state and national conferences related to parks and recreation. This past September, he sent most of his staff to stay at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in Phoenix during an Arizona Parks and Recreation Association conference.

Smith said good training is a way of retaining the department's leadership, and another reason Marana's parks department stands out among other municipalities of its size.

"We try to keep our staff abreast of all the current trends and changes in the industry," he said. "We have the goal to produce a very high level of service to our citizens."

Marana's magistrate court is another area in which the town far outspends other municipalities in travel and training. Marana's court spent $44,836 in the last five fiscal years, compared to Oro Valley's $14,338, Casa Grande's $14,329 and Buckeye's $3,767.

Court Administrator Joseph Teta said he wasn't sure why Marana's costs are more than triple those of other governments, because most of the training his staff does is mandated by law. Teta said he sends all 11 of his employees to conferences each year to meet training requirements.

"Each individual employee of the court system is required by the Arizona Supreme Court to obtain 16 hours of continuous education and training per year," he said. "I don't think we are going above and beyond what's mandatory."

Teta said it's possible other courts are meeting the same requirements by having their employees watch educational videos or doing other kinds of in-house training.

Town records show Teta has taken multiple trips to Las Vegas in the last year and he stayed at the River Palms Resort and Casino in October. He also has stayed at some of the finer hotels around the country, including the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

"I'm not looking to go and find the best places in town," Teta said. "That's just where they have the conferences."

Teta, who makes almost $70,000 a year, spent $566.60 to fly to San Francisco with his wife last July, where he attended another conference that wasn't mandatory. He said he reimbursed the town for the $283.30 he charged to his town-issued credit card for his wife's airfare.

James West, who makes more than $72,000 a year as Marana's magistrate court judge, also has contributed to the court's travel expenses.

West recently booked a two-week trip to Honolulu for an American Bar Association conference. However, his flight leaves July 27 and the conference doesn't start until Aug. 3, giving him ample time to enjoy a personal vacation while taxpayers pick up the tab for his airfare at each end.

West, who admitted he planned the vacation around the convention, isn't the only town official taking vacations in conjunction with the conferences they attend. He said he would spend his own money during the extra week he'll be in Hawaii, though.

"Why wouldn't you take advantage of it?" he said.

West said his contract stipulates that the town must send him to the ABA conference each year, as long as the budget allows for the trip. In the last four years, he's gone to Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., which cost about $2,000 each time.

"It's a lot of networking and it's something I find really helpful to mix with other judges," he said. "I know that's kind of an unusual expense, but it's in my contract, and I guess if they didn't do that, they'd have to compensate me in some other way."

Councilman Tim Escobedo has taken several out-of-state trips since he was elected to Marana's town council in 2001. He tried booking a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, this past year to attend a National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference, which would have cost taxpayers several thousand dollars. He said he decided against going after he already made several charges to his town-issued credit card for the trip.

"Just the cost, in itself, for Puerto Rico was too enormous," Escobedo said, adding that there should be a credit to his account for the cancelled trip. "I ended up not going."

Escobedo's town credit card statements show a charge at the luxurious Caribe Hilton resort was posted to his account during the conference in June. He received a $225 credit from NALEO in July, which was $175 less than the amount he originally paid to register for the conference, though it appears no credits were posted to his account for the hotel charges.

The town has paid to send Escobedo on trips to San Antonio and Denver for NALEO conferences. Because he represents the association's committees on affordable housing and economic development, NALEO sometimes picks up the tab, he said, though other times Marana pays for his airfare, hotel stays, car rentals and meals.

Escobedo thinks the trips are paying off for Marana, though.

"The biggest benefit for the town - especially with affordable housing and economic development - is to find out what other communities across the country are doing," he said. "At the last meeting, we had 47 of the 50 states represented, so you hear of the different economic development programs within the different communities."

Other town officials said they "ended up not going" when asked about some of the trips that were charged to their town-issued credit cards.

In February 2004, Reuwsaat charged $1,140 for him and then-mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. to travel to Fort Worth, Texas, along with both of their wives. Reuwsaat said they were going to accept an award when Marana was named one of the "best managed small cities in America," though the trip was cancelled.

"We tried going to accept this award, but they moved it twice and then they canceled it on us," he said.

In late 2004, Reuwsaat charged another $1,000 so he and Sutton, along with their wives, could stay in Washington, D.C., for the 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors winter convention. Reuwsaat charged another $478.61 for hotel accommodations at the Capitol Hilton shortly after he spent $428.82 for the foursome's airfare.

Reuwsaat said that trip also was cancelled, though the town was never reimbursed for the money it spent. He said he plans to use credits the town should have received to take a future trip to Washington, D.C.

"The tickets are on hold to be used for future trips," he said. "Whenever we're going to fly out again, we'll use them."

According to the town's written policy on travel and training, Marana believes that knowledgeable and well-trained employees are "critical to the success of the town's mission."

"To that end, the Town of Marana encourages employees to attend conferences, seminars and other training opportunities that benefit the employee and the Town of Marana, provided such travel and training is within approved budgetary constraints," the policy states.

Marana employees are paid a per diem rate up to $40 for each day of the trips they take. That pay is intended to cover the cost of meals, phone calls and other miscellaneous charges.

Overnight stays and all travel that involves cash advances or pre-paid expenses must have the approval of the department head, finance director and town manager. However, the town's policy states: "Subject to budget capacity, no approvals are required for elected officials," which has allowed council members to take trips without filling out the same travel forms required of other town employees.

Reuwsaat said he couldn't be certain whether the proper safety nets are in place to ensure there isn't any abuse of taxpayer dollars on trips, because he doesn't "get to that level." Still, he's confident that his employees are being financially responsible.

"I approve the authorization to travel and that's really where my role ends," he said. "I expect the system to work and take care of those issues."

Finance Director Roy Cuaron said he relies on the discretion of the department heads and the employees going on the trips to determine whether charges turned into his department are justified. Holding employees accountable isn't always easy, he said, because there aren't really any repercussions for missing a receipt or not turning in the proper paperwork.

"You'll probably find there are a lot of statements that don't have all of the receipts and, unfortunately, that's a fact of life," Cuaron said. "That's an ongoing battle that we face in the accounting department. We struggle with this monthly - not with everybody, but with some where we send out notices and say, 'Hey, we need receipts and you need to provide them.' But the bottom line is this: In the absence of receipts, we still have to pay the bill and that's what we do."

Reuwsaat said Marana is beginning to reevaluate almost all of its policies and procedures that guide the way the town conducts business. During that process, human resources will be taking a close look at travel and training policies, partly to ensure that there is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, he said.

"We're re-looking at the way we do business, so we're more in line with a city that's growing or one that's maturing," he said. "We're in the process of redoing our land development code, we're in the process of reviewing and rewriting our personnel policies, and I'm actually establishing an administrative policy manual."

Reuwsaat said his focus is on the future, but he's also examining Marana's past. The town attorney recently reformatted the Town Code and staff is now reevaluating all of the town's major documents dating back to the town's inception.

"We're looking at 30 years of work and we're looking at all areas to make sure we have a good foundation as we move forward," he said. "It's healthy for any organization, whether it's a government or otherwise, to look at the way it does business, and travel and training is one of those areas."

Ryan J. Stanton covers the town of Marana and the Marana Unified School District for the EXPLORER. He can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 100, or at rstanton@explorernews.com.

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