Austin council member: city’s party spending ‘unacceptable’

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City leaders are asking staff to create clear policies on Awards and Recognition spending ahead of the upcoming budget season.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Council member Leslie Pool was one of several local leaders to react to the city of Austin’s holiday party spending from last year.

“What you uncovered here, for me, was completely unacceptable,” said Pool, who represents District 7.

After receiving a tip from a concerned city worker, KXAN found that city departments spent tens of thousands of dollars on holiday parties.

Three departments spent more than $15,000 in public money.

Some of the affairs included a DJ or karaoke.

“I think that we are expected and entrusted to be good stewards of the public dollar,” said Pool. “I think in this circumstance, these outcomes were pretty outrageous.”

The investigation also uncovered the city of Austin doesn’t have any clear policies that dictate how much departments can spend on awards and recognition events.

Pool told us she’d like City Manager Spencer Cronk to take on the task of creating some himself.

“We have some of the greatest employees in the country working for the city of Austin,” she said. “And I think it will be really helpful for the City Manager to issue clear guidelines on what spending is appropriate.”

Departments in Austin spent more than $140,000 on holiday parties in December, more than Houston and Dallas combined.

However, there were large discrepancies in spending among local departments.

While some departments spent tens of thousands, others spent no more than a few hundred dollars.

Council member Kathie Tovo says the city’s lower-spending departments could set precedent for a new policy.

“It does look like most of our departments are in a lower range and I think that’s a starting place for our conversation here in Austin,” she said.

Others say the spending discrepancy among departments not only highlights the lack of a clear policy, but also the lack of equity among city employees.

Carol Guthrie of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees says a fair wage, rather than parties, is generally better for boosting morale among employees.

“I think if you were to ask employees what some of the most important things are to them, it’s how they’re treated in the workplace, and being recognized for a job well done,” she said.

AFSCME says the majority of its members are city of Austin employees.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler also responded to KXAN’s investigation. In a statement, he wrote:

“City employees are some of the hardest-working members of our local workforce and take pride in making Austin work for everyone. They choose public service, not for the perks, but for the purpose. That said, local government should always be working to get better and we’ll look at this.”

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