The Brookhaven City Council is slated to vote May 14 on a proposal to eliminate expense account caps for the mayor and councilmembers in the city charter because, in part, the elected officials need more money to cover national and even international travel costs. How much money would be in future expense accounts is unknown, leading some residents to question the council’s motives.
The city charter currently sets the mayor’s salary at $16,000 a year and allows an expense account up to $5,000 a year. Council members are paid $12,000 a year and receive a $3,000 yearly expense account.
That money is eaten up quickly when paying for everything from business cards to attending the annual Georgia Municipal Association conference in Savannah, according to city officials.
The $5,000 cap kept Mayor John Ernst from traveling last year to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., with more than 50 other DeKalb County political and business leaders to take a look at the Twin Cities’ transit system, including light rail and bus rapid transit, he said at an April 23 work session.
Transit is a hot topic as the Georgia Department of Transportation plans to build toll lanes along the top end of I-285. Ernst chaired a group of area mayors that funded a study that reported that bus rapid transit is the most feasible option.
Last week, Ernst traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk with other local government officials about stormwater infrastructure needs. The trip was paid for by the Pew Charitable Trust, sponsor of the event.
Having the mayor travel to more national and international events is crucial to ensuring Brookhaven becomes an influential player in politics, according to city officials. The current expense account caps in the charter are limiting that reach, they said.
“As we grow as a city, we have more opportunities to have an impact and … we’ve been restricted,” Councilmember Joe Gebbia said at the April 23 City Council meeting. “There have been missed opportunities for the city.”
Assistant City Manager Steve Chapman said having expense amounts set in the city charter limits the city from doing its job. By removing the amounts from the charter, the mayor and council members can then set their own travel accounts as part of next year’s public budget process, he added. If the charter change is approved May 14, the 2019 budget could also be amended to cover costs that go over the current $5,000 and $3,000 caps.
Heather Faire spoke out against the change, saying a charter review commission recommended increasing the amounts to $7,000 for the mayor and $5,000 for council members. She said she believed allowing the mayor and council to decide their own travel budgets was “an act of fiscal irresponsibility” and worried there would be no transparency.
Chapman explained planning and approving the budget includes public input and review and is ultimately approved by officials elected by voters. “The budget is approved through a representative government,” he said.
Terrell Carstens also spoke out against the charter change and urged the council to at least state the amounts they wanted their expense accounts to be before voting to change the charter.
The charter could be changed again to reinstate expense account limits, Councilmember John Park said. While he could understand some of the reasons for opposition, he said, from a functional standpoint he saw nothing of consequence in removing the amounts from the charter.
“We don’t do this for the money,” he added.