Colleagues raise stink over spending taxpayer dollars for charitable causes
“If I want to donate to a charity, I’ll donate myself. I don’t expect nor would I want my tax dollars to be used for charitable organizations, albeit, many of those organizations are very deserving. But these are taxpayer dollars being used for them.” Joel Boé, East Baton Rouge Parish councilman
Every year, East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker spends hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents for needy children.
The gifts have ranged from bikes and footballs, to puzzles, children’s underwear and butterfly headbands — a generous show of charity paid for in part with public money. Now, some council members are taking issue with Wicker and others on the council using taxpayer dollars for charitable purposes.
While Wicker appears to be the most prolific spender, a review of council spending from 2010 showed that other council members also have used money from their council budgets for similar charitable causes.
Donna Collins-Lewis, for example, has spent hundreds of dollars on school supplies and food for an annual “Back-to-School Extranvaganza” event. And C. Denise Marcelle spent $1,928 on a contract for tutoring students at her district community center.
Scott Wilson donated $1,000 to the Central Food Pantry, while former Metro Council member Ulysses “Bones” Addison regularly gave tens of thousands of dollars of his council budget to charitable organizations in his district.
In Christmas 2012, Wicker spent at least $2,400 on children’s toys from Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Target, Dollar Tree and Walgreens. And the year before, she spent at least $790.
The expenditures come from the council members’ individual council budgets. Those are the only accounts over which council members have year-round spending authority.
Council members have district budgets of $73,170 which includes salaries for legislative aides, travel budgets and money for office supplies.They have some discretion over spending from their council district budget, which is how some members are able to tap those accounts for community causes they think are worthy.
Councilman Joel Boé questioned whether that’s a proper use of taxpayer dollars.
“If I want to donate to a charity, I’ll donate myself,” Boé said. “I don’t expect, nor would I want my tax dollars to be used for charitable organizations, albeit, many of those organizations are very deserving. But these are taxpayer dollars being used for them.”
But Wicker said using funds for needy constituents fulfills a valid public purpose.
“These programs bring some balance. When we provide kids with schools supplies for school or a Christmas gift for Christmas, I really do believe that helps with the crime rate,” Wicker said. “When people have the opportunity to take care of basic needs and take care of families, you’re going to see a lower crime rate.”
Earlier this past week, the parish-attorney’s office responded to requests from several council members who requested a legal opinion on the guidelines for council funds.
Assistant Parish Attorney Ashley Beck stated that public funds can be used for “social welfare that aid and support the needy” if there is a public purpose and if participants are screened to determine that they qualify as needy.
Some specific examples of uses for council money that were not allowable, she said, are: “a donation to the Make a Wish Foundation for a trip to Disney World for a local child, the purchase of bicycles for children for Christmas presents, donations to a retiree club and donation to a program for summer youth travel among other programs.”
Parish Attorney Mary Roper said the examples used stemmed from requests and conversations with council members. She said she could not say who made the requests, but noted that they were likely never approved.
She also said she couldn’t be sure every expenditure that was reimbursed was allowable under the law. She said council members often consult her office before making purchases for which they plan to seek reimbursement, but are not required to do so.
Beck’s opinion said some examples of allowable expenditures included “a back to school event for needy children at which those children were provided with uniforms, backpacks and school supplies, a donation to an organization that benefits disabled veterans in East Baton Rouge Parish, events benefitting the elderly, provision of meals for the elderly, disabled and low income citizens, and summer youth programs providing meals and educational opportunities for low income children, among other programs.”
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, expressed some concern about the giveaways, but said council members are referred to the Parish Attorney’s Office whenever there is concern over whether a expenditure is appropriate.
C. Denise Marcelle said her district participates in prom dress giveaways and Christmas toy giveaways. She said she generally raises private donations to fund such events, but sometimes uses money from out of her community center’s budget to make additional purchases.
Roper said the spending rules apply to all city-parish funds.
“I think they’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Marcelle said, of council members expressing concern over expenditures. “We’re allotted certain funds, and if I choose to give it to a charitable donation, that’s my business. If we don’t use it, it goes back to the general fund.”
Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe said for the past three years he’s asked permission to give $500 to a Gardere area charity in his district but has consistently been denied.
“I can’t do it, but I find out everyone else is giving back-to-school giveaways every other day,” Loupe said. “How come I get denied?”
He questioned whether some of his colleagues were taking the steps to ensure their use of funds was legal.
“You can’t give bikes away as Christmas presents,” he said citing an Attorney General opinion. “But skirting around that by giving other toys doesn’t make it legal or right.”
Loupe said the giveaways are linked to the five community centers in the low-income areas of the parish. He said he’d like to see an audit of spending conducted, and more explicit procedures put in place.
Wicker said it might be difficult for some council members who don’t represent low-income districts to understand the public purpose behind the giveaways and charitable causes.
“The demographics are entirely different than the urban districts, and the needs are very different,” Wicker said. “For those council members that aren’t dealing with that on a daily basis, they’re not dealing with the phone calls or getting the visits from constituents.”
She said when she provides funding for a community event, with food and T-shirts, as she often has, it provides a young black male an opportunity to meet some role models.
Wicker said she doesn’t always ask the recipients of the giveaways to prove they’re needy, because she’s attempting to spare them further humiliation. But she said it is limited to kids in her district.
But Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards, who also represents some low income areas of the parish, said she “doesn’t believe in giveaways” using taxpayer money because they “don’t help people understand the value of independence and the value of self-sufficiency.”
She said any giveaways she’s been involved with are funded with community donations, and all participants fill out applications to ensure they are needy.
Edwards said she thinks council members should continue to be allowed to support charities as long as they are well accounted for.
But she would like to see policies put in place to govern the giveaways.