Collier commissioners vary approach in tapping taxpayer money to attend events

Donna Fiala, Collier County commissioner.

Photo by submitted

Donna Fiala, Collier County commissioner.

“If there are taxpayers attending and you can relate to them, be there for them, listen to their concerns, then it has a valid public purpose,” Commissioner Donna Fiala said.

— Collier County commissioners have attended or will attend a $125 per person lunch with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a $500 Leadership Marco program, the $125 per person Myra Daniels gala and a $180 per person Temple Shalom Gala.

And Collier County taxpayers will pay for all of it.

The expenses are legitimate under a county ordinance, which allows commissioners to attend events for a "valid public purpose."

Each Collier commissioner receives $4,000 a year to spend for valid public purposes. County policy, passed in 1999, encourages commissioners to attend functions of "fraternal, business, environmental, educational, charitable, social, professional, trade, homeowners, ethnic, and civic associations/organizations."

The expenses are valid because they facilitate "communication with the public, gathering of information about board issues, and (provide) feedback about county matters and the legislative process," the ordinance states.

The issue came up at the start of last week's commission meeting when Commissioner Donna Fiala asked to clarify one of her reimbursements. Fiala said she wanted those at the meeting to know she wasn't asking for $500 in reimbursement for one day of programming, but rather a series of classes under Leadership Marco.

"I am honored they have invited me to join," she said.

Under the policy, if a commissioner attends an event and there is food, drink and/or entertainment, commissioners are expected to pay to attend and be reimbursed for those costs. Commissioners approve reimbursements for these events with a majority vote at each commission meeting.

The Daily News reviewed a year's worth of valid public purpose reimbursements asked for by commissioners — from April 26, 2011, to the recent meeting on May 8.

Commissioner Donna Fiala spent the most at $1,509 during that year.

Commissioner Georgia Hiller was next with $1,085.15 in reimbursements.

The Daily News reviewed a year's worth of valid public purpose reimbursements asked for by commissioners — from April 26, 2011, to the recent meeting on May 8.

Fiala spent the most at $1,509 during that year. Among her most expensive outings — $125 for the Helen Bell panel discussion with Donald Rumsfeld and $140 for the Zoobilee 2012 program at the Naples Zoo.

Fiala said her "invisible line" that she usually doesn't cross when it comes to costs is $125, but makes exceptions when she believes it's important.

"The zoo, the taxpayers are all invested in it. I think it is important to stay involved. And we approve tourist tax dollars to go to the zoo occasionally," she said. "It's important to go and see what is going on."

Events Fiala regularly attends include the East Naples Civic Association luncheon, which is $18, and the Marco Police Foundation luncheon, which is $20.

Fiala said it is important to go where the taxpayers are.

"If there are taxpayers attending and you can relate to them, be there for them, listen to their concerns, then it has a valid public purpose," she said.

Commissioner Georgia Hiller had $1,085.15 in reimbursements. She had several expenses of more than $100, including $180 for the Temple Shalom Golden Gala, $140 for the Zoobilee event; $125 for the Myra Daniels gala and $130 for the Ave Maria School of Law annual fall gala.

Georgia Hiller

Georgia Hiller

"The only time I ask for reimbursement is if I have no choice," Commissioner Georgia Hiller said, adding that she tries to avoid food, drinks and entertainment events to avoid having to take the reimbursement.

"The only time I ask for reimbursement is if I have no choice," Hiller said, adding that she tries to avoid food, drinks and entertainment events to avoid having to take the reimbursement.

Of the commissioners, Hiller's expenses were the most diverse. She never went to an event or meeting twice and asked to be reimbursed for it.

"Our job is to go to these events, to be supportive of the organizations and to be there to answer questions — to be there to help," she said. "My goal is to be fair because I can't go to everything, I try not to do the same things over and over again."

Hiller said there are two components to the cost of attending events — the event ticket and the cost of getting there and back.

"I don't charge for travel," she said. "I eat that cost myself. But I had no idea these other commissioners had such large reimbursements. It's a lot of money."

Aside from the actual cost of the ticket, commissioners also can be reimbursed for travel expenses — up to $5,000 among the five commissioners. Hiller and Commissioner Fred Coyle haven't charged the county for expenses related to travel in fiscal 2011.

Fiala has billed the county $1,933.53 for travel expenses. Commissioner Jim Coletta has expensed $1,940.91. Commissioner Tom Henning has billed the county $860.47 for travel costs.

Coletta said he knew his travel total would be the highest because of the size of his district, which stretches from Immokalee to Everglades City and includes Golden Gate Estates.

Jim Coletta

Jim Coletta

Coletta asked for an additional $935.50 in reimbursements for valid public purposes. His most expensive reimbursement was $250 to attend the Catholic Charities' Emerald Ball 27th anniversary celebration at a Ritz-Carlton resort.

Coletta also asked for $125 in reimbursement to attend the Helen Bell panel discussion and lunch, where Rumsfeld spoke. But the majority of his reimbursements were between $5 and $20 for events like the Eastern Collier Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting or a Know Your County Government luncheon.

Coletta said scheduling has to do with his decision whether to attend events and cites requests to be at an event, including organizations he has supported in the past like Catholic Charities, as reasons he attends many of the functions.

"If it doesn't have a public purpose or it is political, I don't submit a request for reimbursement," he said.

Coletta said there are also certain costs for which he doesn't seek reimbursement. He said he is active in his Rotary, which he belonged to before becoming a commissioner, and pays his own way.

Coletta said he doesn't go to events to spend money.

"You go to talk to people and better assess the needs of the community," he said. "When I go to something, I look at the cost and the educational benefit I am going to get out of it."

Collier County Commissioner Fred Coyle on NewsMakers 9-25-11.

Collier County Commissioner Fred Coyle on NewsMakers 9-25-11.

Coyle didn't ask for reimbursement for any public purpose in the year of requests that the Daily News analyzed.

"I have very seldom asked for reimbursement. I usually pay for things out of my own pocket," he said. "When county staff has not received any salary increases and the commissioners cannot take a freeze because the Legislature sets our salaries, I don't feel it is right (for taxpayers) to pay for my own expenses. It's a personal choice I made."

Coyle said there are rare occasions when he is reimbursed, like when he went to Maine related to the Jackson Labs proposal.

"I had my transportation and lodging paid for. But I figure I am going to eat wherever I am, so I don't need the government to pay for that," he said.

For financial reasons, Coyle said, he knows not every commissioner can make the same choice.

"There are commissioners who are in different circumstances," he said.

Among commissioners who asked to be reimbursed, Henning asked for the least amount of money back — $213 total. Henning couldn't be reached for comment.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 2

OldMarcoMan writes:

Are they serious? So much for doing it for the good of the community , you even have to pay Donna to hang out amongst the people for lunch?
Marco might have its problems at City Hall but we do have a City Council that basically works for free and isn't running back with lunch receipts because a voter was in the restaurant with them.

OldMarcoMan writes:

I usually think you are a dink Klaus, and I'm a Republican, but Public Money shouldn't be used for anything Partizan.
This is so wrong on so many levels, and I have to blame the Paper as much as anyone because they wait till Filia is running unopposed to reveal this.
How can concerned voters make good decisions when the so called watch dogs hide information to protect the power brokers ?

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features