Florida Inland Navigation District officials throw monthly parties attended mainly by government and business officials, frequently stay in luxurious waterfront hotels and occasionally rack up big bills for plane tickets and car rentals, a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation has found.
Since 2005, the state agency has spent more than $503,000 on travel and meeting expenses for commissioners and staff. In the last two years, $203,000 was spent, according to figures provided by the agency.
FIND has “Community Outreach Events” the night before each monthly commission meeting where officials dine on free appetizers. Beer, wine and mixed drinks are offered at a cash bar.
Although advertised on FIND’s website and in local newspapers and other publications, the meetings and outreach events rarely are attended by citizens. The events are often in banquet or meeting rooms at luxury hotels and attended mostly by FIND officials, local government officials and representatives from the marine industries.
While the economic downturn has forced many government agencies to cut back on travel and other costs, FIND’s travel expenses have steadily increased over the last six years — except for budget year 2009-10 when expenses went down slightly from the previous year.
The state agency’s spending of taxpayer money on travel has been labeled “extravagant” by one of the group’s critics.
TRAVELING ROAD SHOW
FIND, which performs maintenance dredging on the Intracoastal Waterway, has a staff of six employees led by long-time Executive Director David Roach. The governor appoints a FIND commissioner for each of the 12 counties on Florida’s east coast. FIND has one commission meeting in each county per year.
Depending on how far a commissioner has to travel, attending a meeting can cost between a little more than $300 up to nearly $1,000. Roach said the agency has discussed conducting meetings via video conference to save money but hasn’t investigated the idea fully.
While Roach said the agency paid an average room rate of $121 per night for hotel stays this year, travel expenses in the last six years show:
Luxury hotel stays at the Washington Court Hotel in the District of Columbia costing more than $300 and $459 per night; $254 per night at The Palms in Miami Beach; and $243 per night at the Viceroy Hotel in Miami.
Expensive flights to instate meetings. In one case, a one-day, round trip for a board member to fly from Miami to Tallahassee cost $697.
FIND TRAVEL AND MEETING EXPENSES
Here is a look at FIND’s expenses for the last six years.
Rentals of a Lincoln Navigator luxury sport utility vehicle by one board member costing nearly $900 in total, not including gas.
A per diem allowance of $70 for food, including $15 apiece for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $40 for dinner.
Annual lobbying trips to Washington costing as much as $2,000 per board member.
Roach said the agency’s travel expenses are a small part of its $77.2 million overall budget, and booking trips is handled “very conservatively and responsibly.”
Records show in some instances FIND received group rates on hotel stays, including at the five-star rated Vero Beach Hotel & Spa. Rates there range from $150 to $400 per night. FIND paid $129 per night in May.
“We have got 12 commissioners who are unpaid to do this,” Roach said. “We ask them and staff to travel every month. We have kind of this traveling road show. So we come to facilities that can handle our event properly. We negotiate good rates.”
FIND critic Gary Kaczenski described the waterfront hotels where FIND has many of its meetings as “extravagant.”
“I would hope they would be responsible enough to get a hotel in the middle of the road because they are spending taxpayer money,” Kaczenski said. “You can get a decent hotel for a little over $100. So, $300 a night does sound extravagant, and I think the average person would agree.”
Robert Weissert -VP FL Tax Watch
Robert Weissert, vice president for research with Florida Tax Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said those in control of public money should spend it as frugally as possible.
“If taxpayer dollars are being used to purchase luxuries, whether it’s hotels, meeting spaces, hors d’oeuvres, other things, luxuries for public servants and lobbyists then that’s an egregious misuse of the taxpayer dollars in violation of the public trust,” Weissert said.
FIND has some of its meetings at government buildings, such as city halls.
“It’s just not a good comfortable fit. We’re kind of shoehorning ourself onto a dais that is really only created for five people, and we have 12 commissioners. But we do that often when it works out for us,” Roach said.
Sometimes hotels are chosen for the convenience of board members. FIND paid room rates of $149 per night at One Ocean Resort in Duval County for the Nov. 17 outreach event.
“One Ocean was chosen so that we could say goodbye at the outreach event to ex-Duval County FIND Commissioner Mike Mesiano who just went off the board and lives in Atlantic Beach, two blocks from the hotel,” Roach said.
EVENTS DRIVE UP COSTS
Roach attributed FIND’s increase in travel expenses to inflation, additional district projects and more trips to Washington to lobby for additional federal funding and other federal issues.
FIND COMMUNITY OUTREACH EVENT COSTS
Here is a look at the cost for FIND’s monthly community outreach events:
December: $1,152Source: Florida Inland Navigation District
He said travel costs increased in the 2007-08 budget year when FIND began paying for its outreach events. Before then sponsors in the local communities paid for the events.
“The commissioners began to feel uncomfortable awarding grants to entities paying for the events,” Roach said. “So, to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest, the District started paying for them.”
Roach said the outreach events allow community leaders, officials and others to “meet and speak with the district’s commissioners and staff.”
Roach said FIND also likes to hear from residents.
“However, they do not seem to flock to attend government events for whatever reason,” Roach said. “We could probably do more advertising of the events to elicit some more public attendance, but then they may grow too big and expensive and be beyond the capabilities of the small FIND staff.”
FIND in some cases doesn’t release the location of the monthly outreach events and commission meetings until about a week before they are scheduled to take place.
“We post the information when the official notice is completed,” Roach said. “The information is available by phone call to the office. We could probably post a week or so earlier, but we were unaware that it was a problem for anyone.”
NOT ALWAYS SMOOTH SAILING
Although FIND’s outreach events are advertised as free public meetings, attending them isn’t always easy.
FIND’s Oct. 27 outreach event was at the International Swimming Hall of Fame within the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
When two Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers reporters and a photographer arrived at the front gate of the Swimming Hall of Fame asking about FIND’s outreach event, security personnel kept them from entering without paying a $36 admission to the boat show.
After about 15 minutes and several discussions, security personnel looked at the public notice on FIND’s website and allowed the reporters and photographer inside.
When the news crew attempted to enter the area where the event was, a woman said it was a private event.
The reporters told her they were looking for FIND’s outreach event to which she replied, “You said the magic word,” and held up a piece of paper with the words “Florida Inland Navigation” on it.
Asked why it was so difficult for citizens to get in, Roach said: “The event inside of an event like this is always difficult to have absolutely coordinated. We are a little bit disappointed that the boat show people, who kept telling us, ‘Hey, we’ll have this covered, anybody who shows up and says, ‘We’re with FIND,’ they’ll be ushered right in and told where to go.’ … I’m sorry if that didn’t quite work out as good as it should have. But we worked on that hard.”
Roach said FIND had the outreach meeting at the boat show so the commissioners could tour a megayacht, which cost $2 millions to operate and maintain, and learn about the economic importance of deepening the Intracoastal Waterway so the large vessels can reach marinas and repair facilities in South Florida.
During the event, commissioners and staff dined on food by M Bar, a Tapas restaurant, and drank alcohol from two cash bars. The outreach event cost $1,525 for 61 attendees, according to figures provided by FIND.
The events often have a bar where guests pay for drinks. But records show in May of last year Indian River County FIND Commissioner Bruce Barkett purchased more than $133 worth of beer and wine for a FIND outreach event at the Environmental Learning Center in Wabasso. Roach said FIND helped construct the center through its waterway assistance program.
Food items purchased included $160 worth of crab meat and chicken wings from Toojays restaurant and $382 worth of food and drink from Publix grocery store, including pasta and fruit and dessert platters, receipts show. FIND reimbursed Barkett for the food and alcohol, records show.
Roach said there is no policy against FIND reimbursing commissioners for alcohol.
Receipts also show FIND reimbursed Barkett for a $100 tip to a trio of middle school students who played music at the event.
“The commissioner wanted to pay them a little for their effort,” Roach said. “In total, the cost for this event was low.”
GOING THE DISTANCE
Spencer Crowley of Miami-Dade is the most frequent flier on the board. He flies mainly from Miami to meetings in Jacksonville, but has taken flights from Miami to Orlando and Nassau County, records show.
His trips to Jacksonville in some cases have cost more than $700, which includes a car rental, fuel and airport parking.
In March of last year, Crowley flew to Tallahassee to meet with an official with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to discuss manatee and turtle issues concerning a project in his county, records show. The one-day, round trip cost $697 for airfare, $41 for a taxi and $15 for airport parking.
Asked whether Crowley could have handled this meeting via telephone, Roach said, “(Crowley) didn’t think so.”
Records show former board member Gail Byrd sometimes drove her personal car to board meetings, but other times she rented sport utility vehicles, including a Lincoln Navigator and Mercury Mountaineer.
She drove the vehicles from Stuart to Jacksonville, Amelia Island, Fort Lauderdale and New Smyrna Beach. In one of several instances where she rented the Navigator she rented the vehicle for eight days for a FIND meeting in Jacksonville. Two of the days she used the vehicle for a personal trip to North Carolina but deducted that cost to FIND. The total cost for the rental was $564. FIND reimbursed her $421 for six days of vehicle rental, Roach said.
Roach said he didn’t recall why Byrd and other board members rented vehicles to travel to board meetings or whether they carpooled.
He said FIND uses the 55-cents-per-mile Internal Revenue Service mileage allowance for reimbursement of private car use.
“So, sometimes a rental car can be cheaper depending on the distance traveled,” he said.