The budget from Ballinger hasn’t been in the black since former city manager Bryan Grimes cashed in $360,000 in CDs in September 2015 and the then city used $225,000 from a grant repayment to pay for projects. The subject has been discussed ad nauseam for the last 15 months. The city has recently taken action to address their budget woes, including laying off employees and taking other steps to rein in spending.
With all of that being said, and arguably more city council oversight than in previous administrations, surprises continue to pop up.
At the December 16th Ballinger City Council meeting, it was brought up that the city gave out almost $8000 to employees in the form of Christmas bonuses. Councilman Rick Morrish was unhappy with the revelation and said that the council had voted to give each employee a turkey or a ham in lieu of monetary bonuses.
According to city documents provided by the city, the bonuses ranged from $110 - $450. Overall the funds totaled $7,920.00.
Councilman Morrish gave a statement regarding the bonuses; “I was surprised and shocked by this action, especially when the city is in a financial crisis. This is unacceptable! During budget considerations, hams and turkeys were discussed, not cash. This shows total disrespect for the council and city.”
City councilwoman Kristi Goetz commented about the bonuses, “Council discussed employee bonuses in our budget meetings, but we agreed that this year we’d need to save every dime to put our city in better financial shape. The PD did reserve an amount in their budget for end-of-year bonuses. We are so thankful for the hard work of all of our employees this year and wish we could provide even more than a bonus, but we are trying to be extremely financially frugal with this year’s budget, in the hopes that next year we’d be able to do even more. I would never consider recalling the bonuses, but I was very disappointed that the budget was not being adhered to. We simply must be diligent to improve the city finances.”
Mayor Dawni Seymore also commented, “I am disappointed that bonuses were given to city employees given the gravity of our finances. I will be moving forward with eyes wide open and expect prudent financial decisions, which is a primary function of our city manager. Simply put, this is a business and if people cannot perform the duties assigned then we need to re-evaluate.”
The bonuses had been discussed at council meetings but some council members said that they did not give final approval, believing that turkeys and hams would be given out to employees.
The surprises didn’t stop there. Upon further review of the city’s credit card statements between November 2015 and December 2019, it was determined that during those trying financial times, when they city was left without any financial reserves, employees were still spending exorbitant amounts of money on the city’s credit card and Amazon account. At the December 16th, 2019 city council meeting, it was stated that the city credit cards were taken up by interim city manager Randy Everett in early 2018, but this proved to not be the case according to the statements.
In total, 11 different employees held city credit cards during the time frame of the statements. While the travel was work related, the spending wasn’t monitored. According to receipts, in April of 2016, 2 employees went to a Texas Rangers game and spent $99.50 on food and beer; “Jumbo dog (4@$6), Ballpark nachos $15.00 (2@$7.50), Souvenir soda, $13.50 (2@$6.75 each), Souvenir draft beer, $9.25.”
In another instance during April, employees ate at Ruth’s Chris Steakhose in San Antonio for $180.20. A trip to Hooters Riverwalk during that same trip ran up a bill of $50.33. In April of 2017 an employee went to Galveston and spent $742.19, including $230 at Moody Gardens.
The credit card statements show that in March 2016, a trip to Washington D.C. by Grimes and 2 councilmembers cost the city over $2500. This included hotel stays in Washington D.C. and Weatherford, TX. This was a mere 5 months after the city had to dip into its reserves. Those CDs were cashed out on September 22nd, 2015, which was 8 days before the end of FY2015. As stated above, it was explained that the money was used for paving projects and to cover unexpected shortfalls in sales tax revenue.
The credit card receipts showed that Grimes spent in excess of $20,000 on food and travel alone during his tenure in Ballinger. Former city manager Tommy New attended a council meeting in February 2019 where CPA Gayla Fullerton presented her findings. New questioned whether or not the former councils used CD money to make the budget appear in the black for a couple of years. Fullerton said that was correct, but that CDs were considered “cash on hand.”
According to the credit card statements, in two months, November and December of 2015, city employees charged $6,867.15 to the credit card. In the year 2016 the city credit card charges were $66,755.13. In 2017 the charges totaled $67,771.42. In 2018 they totaled $62,929.41 and between January and July of 2019, the total came to $61,269.67. Each year the charges included numerous meals at Saltgrass barbeque, Lowake Steakhouse, Beefmaster, Perini Ranch Steakhouse, and trips to Austin, Lubbock, Odessa, Dallas, Galveston, etc.
Two trips in October of 2016 cost the City of Ballinger $3,564.75. The charges included $124.23 at Coopers BBQ in Llano as well as $141.48 at PF Changs in Austin. It included hotel stays at the Hilton hotel in Austin with charges of $742.65 and 4 charges of 511.75 each, as well as a single charge for $148.68 to the Doubletree hotel in Dallas. There were charges from Llano to Austin to Lampasas to Dallas to Brownwood. There were several months during this timespan where travel and food totaled between $1,000 and $2000.
Charges also included Sirius XM radio subscriptions, one of which was for $243.19.
From October 3rd-6th, 2017, there were charges on the city credit card held by former city manager Bryan Grimes for $3,451.66. Purchases included travel and hotels for him and 3 employees to go to Houston as well as some make purchases, mostly food, around Ballinger and Abilene. Additionally, there were 4 charges at the Hilton Americas in Houston for $528.64 each and one charge of $957.22. There was a charge on that month’s statement for $103.33 at Threadgill’s in Austin, along with purchases at Lytle Land & Cattle in Abilene, as well as two charges at Rangel Bros restaurant in Ballinger, among others.
A quick snapshot of the expenditures shows that approximately $57,000.00 was spent by city employees between November 2015 and July of 2019, just on food and travel. There were charges locally in Ballinger for items ranging from a simple cup of coffee to meals at Beefmaster Steakhouse. According to city records, in 2015 there were 4 employees with city credit cards; 2016 had 6 employees; 2017 had 9 employees; 2018 had 7 employees and 2019 had 9 employees with credit cards. Due to the city council crackdown on spending, as of this printing, there are only 2 people with a city credit card.
This review doesn’t take into account other Amazon charges made by employees on the city account for personal items. According to the city, the charges were allegedly paid back by the employees who used the city account for personal items ranging from purses to key fobs to personal trimmers. Councilwoman Goetz has spent hours painstakingly going over each receipt over the last 4 years and is continuing to work on determining where improvements can be made. One problem she’s encountered is that many of the purchases over the years don’t have receipts and several of the December 2019 receipts are missing.
Goetz commented on the credit card and Amazon accounts, “In reviewing the last 4 years of credit card statements and receipts, there have been many things learned and opportunities to make changes and improve. It was alarming to find the amount spent on travel and dining, ranging from daily lunch to fine dining for groups (steak, lobster, prime rib, and Brazilian steakhouses), meals and beer at sporting events, and riverboat tours. I'm sure that these were all city related business, but there were some months that all receipts have been misplaced, so I cannot confirm. We are hoping that these can be recovered to help clarify expenses. Another shocking revelation was that many receipts were only summaries, with no detail, and many charges had no receipts at all. There was a very large amount of money being spent on Amazon, which is somewhat understandable in this day and age. I was surprised to find that employees had used the company credit card and city Amazon account to purchase personal items tax and shipping free. Some supervisors used personal Amazon accounts, rather than our tax-free account to make purchases with the city credit card, and many times there were no receipts provided to document exactly what items were purchased through these accounts. I am not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, only stating that we can’t track purchases if we don’t have receipts. Overall, what we have learned is that we need tighter policies in place in the future. We will be reviewing new purchasing procedures and credit card use agreements at our next council meeting. At a time where every penny counts, these policies are long overdue."
The ongoing concern for misuse can be summed up in one Amazon purchase on September 25th of 2017, titled “Waterplant,” which in reality was for 2 batteries for a razor scooter.
Just the first 7 months of this year, January through July, saw the city credit card spending reach in excess of $61,000. The credit card purchase amounts do not include all of the Amazon purchase amounts.
Despite recent budget shortfalls, the statements and receipts show that city spending problems have been going on since at least 2015, yet even when the city was going through their reserves, tens of thousands of dollars were spent on food and travel. Since the end of 2018, the food and travel expenses have been reduced greatly but there is still work to be done according to the city council. The council continues to work to cut the spending and stay within budget to eventually build their reserves back up. Plaguing this budget year has been rental equipment that sat motionless at the water plant, running up a bill of approximately $8,500 each month for several months and two severe waterline leaks.
While the trips over the years were for training or business, the food and hotel expenditures could have seemingly cost the city less. Many of the purchases were for equipment or parts or things such as the TML membership dues. One issue that the council is addressing is that there has been no cap on per diem spending. They’re now addressing that issue along with revising the purchase order system and detailing new rules for spending.
The city has made strides in moving towards lessening the budget while still getting much-needed work accomplished. While Turney has been city manager, Ballinger has been awarded grants for $500,000 for 2 new fire department trucks; $275,000 for street repairs and paving; and another $30,000 grant for a new police vehicle.
All credit card statements, Amazon statements and receipts, along with the handwritten notes on various documents, were received from the City of Ballinger under a Freedom of Information Request. The documents have been uploaded to the newspaper’s Facebook page and have not been altered in any way from the way that they were received.