Save those receipts

March 30, 2004

IN BUSINESS and public life, routine expense accounts usually work this way: Submit a receipt, get reimbursed. The Baltimore City Council shouldn't be exempt from this most basic practice of financial responsibility and accountability.

Requiring the 19 council members to submit receipts for council expenses - the way it works for other city employees - is the easiest way to revamp the body's unique and unorthodox system, one that has raised questions about spending practices, tax considerations and legal implications.

For the past 20 years or so, the city has advanced council members $5,000 a year for nonoperational expenses and required little in the way of accounting for use of the money. As reported in The Sun this week, council members say they spent the expense money in a variety of ways - on donations to churches, support of community events, even helping the needy pay their rent.

But the most unusual aspect of the system involves money that remains unspent at the end of the year: Council members can just pocket it.

At the very least, this built-in bonus should be eliminated immediately. Any unspent expense money should be rolled over for use the following year by council members. That would eliminate any confusion about the need to pay taxes on this money. Only two council members - to their credit, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - last year spent less than $5,000, submitted a detailed accounting of their expenses to the city and paid taxes on the additional income. The others claimed to have spent the exact amount or more than $5,000 - but not all kept receipts to prove that.

The newspaper's account on the expense system coincides with a federal grand jury inquiry into City Council finances, which has been under way since September. City Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday she would work with city finance officials to implement "best practices" and "update guidelines" for use of the expense money.

Ms. Dixon, who receives $7,000 annually under the system, is wise to try and get ahead of the issue - although it must be said that no council member has been accused of criminal wrongdoing.

But let's face it, the interest of federal prosecutors has prompted this review, overdue as it is. And the reforms must be implemented quickly. City taxpayers are entitled to know how the money is spent - it totals about $100,000 a year - and a systematic accounting of the money would spare the council undue suspicion.

Past administrations could have initiated reforms, but none had the interest - or courage - to take on this political perk, and city auditors apparently never reviewed it. But now there's no reason to keep this system, anachronistic at best, because it serves neither the council members nor the city well. Requiring receipts and establishing a proper accountability system are the least of it.

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