Bridgeport City Council could get $40,000 fund for ‘travel services’

BRIDGEPORT — The all-Democrat City Council is considering increasing members’ $9,000 annual stipends without directly increasing that amount.

The city budget that Mayor Joe Ganim submitted to the legislature earlier this month contains, in addition to the standard $180,000 in member stipends to cover all of their expenses, a proposed new pot – $40,000 for travel services’.

“People don’t like to talk about increasing the allowance,” Council President Aidee Nieves admitted. “It was just an easier way to not have to fight to increase our allowances.”

That extra $40,000 would also come on top of about $200,000 to $300,000 in new staffing costs as MPs move forward with creating their own legislative staff. A previously reported proposal to create a handful of council aides is due for a vote on Monday.

Council members access their $9,000 tax-free allowances by debit card, but this full amount is not available to all of them at once. Instead, each quarter they receive $2,250. Nieves said this has created a problem for board members who travel to conferences, especially early in the year, and quickly run out of debit cards.

“Even if we stay in a cheap hotel, you’re blowing your quarterly budget,” she said.

And that’s what resulted in the proposed $40,000 travel account. Theoretically, this fund, if passed in the final 2022-23 municipal budget that council and Ganim pass in early May, will provide an additional $2,000 to each council member, although, Nieves noted, some benefit more than others. other business travel opportunities.

Similarly, some council members exhaust their allowances, others do not. According to the city, at the end of the last two fiscal years, there were $34,391 and $54,636, respectively, remaining in the council’s allocation account.

Hearst Connecticut Media’s earlier reviews of council expenses found that many members used their $9,000 to cover meals — cups of coffee and takeout food to sit in restaurants, gas for their cars, telephone and/or internet costs, conference airfare and accommodations, donations to local organizations or events, and activities for constituents.

“I have a lot of voters who are going through tough times. And you’re trying to help your community,” said councilor Ernie Newton, who co-chairs the budget committee currently analyzing Ganim’s 2022-23 tax plan and meeting with department heads.

But such donations have also come under fire in the past, with critics saying taxpayer-funded stipends are strictly for business and that if council members want to make contributions, those dollars should come out of their own pockets.

Newton supports the creation of a travel account – “Not everyone might go, but…you can’t learn anything by sitting in Bridgeport” – but thinks that ideally he and his colleagues should receive wages.

“You work hard, on call 24/7,” he said. “Yes, they give you $9,000 stipends, but most of that money is spent in the community.”

Another council member, Jorge Cruz, said he would also support the travel account, but would prefer a salary.

“We get a $9,000 scholarship,” he said. “I feel like they are giving us an allowance. Change it to salary.

But, Nieves said, others don’t want a salary because it would be taxable income.

Councilor Maria Pereira said the proposed extra travel dollars and money needed to hire staff for the council could be better spent on education or filling larger positions in other city departments like parks.

Pereira added that while it may sometimes be necessary for a board member to travel, she wondered “what is it in today’s world that you cannot learn in an online seminar or a webinar?

If his board colleagues can’t make do with $9,000, they shouldn’t have shown up, Pereira said.

While elected officials from several Connecticut municipalities receive some form of compensation, only Hartford pays a salary — $15,000 a year.

New Haven Board of Alders members receive annual stipends of $2,000, Norwalk Common Council members receive monthly stipends of $50, while Stamford and Danbury city legislators serve for free. However, Stamford is currently going through a charter review process and compensation for its Board of Representatives is being discussed.

Thomas McCarthy spent 16 years on the Bridgeport council, including ten as chairman, before retiring in 2017. He remembers many debates over the $9,000 stipend increase.

“There were a number of members who wanted to do it but we never did,” McCarthy said. “I always thought the figure ($9,000) was fair when I was there. But times have changed. It’s something that needs to be reassessed, regularly.

Some members of the Connecticut General Assembly, whose members have earned $28,000 in base pay for more than two decades, recently explored a pay rise, saying higher pay would attract more diverse candidates who don’t currently cannot afford to hold a position.

Councilman Scott Burns, Newton’s budget co-chair, admitted to having “some qualms” about the $40,000 travel expense account. He said a possible alternative would be to make existing $9,000 stipends available sooner.

“Maybe we’re distributing the payouts in six-month chunks, not three-month chunks, and giving people more flexibility,” he said.

Burns added while he agrees it can be beneficial to attend conferences, and that a travel account could encourage greater attendance, “There is certainly a past history of maybe not the best use of our council allowances, by some members at least.”

Tyler Mack was elected to the board last November. He said he was fine with the concept of a travel expense account, but was unsure how much money should be set aside.

“I see value in attending conferences and traveling on behalf of the board to go and learn and bring back new ideas,” Mack said. “To go and see what other communities are doing so we can better serve Bridgeport. When you’re stuck in one place, you don’t expand your mind or your knowledge. (But) maybe we need less than $40,000? I do not know.”