IN HIS FIRST year on Richland County Council, Jim Manning voluntarily reduced his expense account by 5 percent to match budget cuts the administrator’s staff had to endure.
But today that seemingly selfless act comes across as exactly that — an act. The past two fiscal years, Mr. Manning has been anything but budget-conscious, overspending his expense account first by $38.86 and then by $1,131.96.
And judging from his latest effort, he isn’t done.
Instead of living within their $7,000 limit — nearly half again the $14,500 salaries for council members — Mr. Manning wants to give overspenders such as himself any leftover funds from other members’ accounts. In other words, if nine council members spend little or nothing, the other two could splurge. Last year, Val Hutchinson and Bill Malinowski didn’t use their accounts at all, meaning that if the Manning Rule were in place, there would have been at least $14,000 available for others to claim.
That’s unacceptable and irresponsible.
Mr. Manning insists that his overspending is a sign of a busy schedule. It’s not. Spending more than you’re allowed — not once, but twice — is a sign of poor stewardship and a disregard for established limits.
Mr. Manning isn’t the only one who has trouble controlling his spending. Four months into the current fiscal year, Councilwoman Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy already had overspent her account by $604.05. Ms. Kennedy is not a novice at squandering public dollars. During her previous tenure on the council, she was one of two members who took a trip to Hawaii at taxpayers’ expense, with no credible explanation for how the junket served the interests of Richland County.
Guidelines set last year say the discretionary accounts should be used for office supplies, travel, food and community functions, but council members manage their own accounts, and it’s not clear how the county ensures the accounts aren’t used for personal expenses. Such lax oversight often turns such accounts into little more than slush funds.
Ultimately, we do agree with Mr. Manning that changes need to be made. After council members reject his reckless proposal, they should establish a system that makes it impossible for members to overspend their more-than-generous accounts. They also should establish checks to ensure that the money is used appropriately.
Frankly, it could be argued that the accounts — increased from $5,000 per member in 2007 — should be decreased. Many taxpayers are severely challenged to provide basic necessities for their families. They had to eat into their discretionary money long ago. And a council member has the audacity to ask for more? Really?