CINCINNATI - As Cincinnati grappled with a $35 million deficit and first began to consider laying off police and firefighters, Mayor Mark Mallory and several members of his staff took a 10-day trip to Spain.
The purpose of that trip, from Feb. 21 to March 3, was to meet with the company building five vehicles for Cincinnati's long-planned and now financially troubled streetcar system at its factory in Zaragoza, Spain.
The mayor said he seized the opportunity to do double duty by pitching the city to businesses while there.
But critics counter that the mayor's job is in Cincinnati -- especially when difficult decisions are on the table.
Mallory and staff members were in Europe when the city manager first announced the possible layoff of 338 municipal workers as a means to balance the city's budget.
The city manager announced Thursday an alternative plan that reduces layoffs to 201, but increases cuts to city services and includes unpaid furloughs for city workers.
City documents obtained by WCPO Digital outline how the mayor and his staff spent $21,010 on the trip. The public records also detail how they spent their time in Europe, including visits to other cities that took them to Madrid, San Sebastian and Beasain.
As Mallory is quick to note, however, the money for the trip came from an account set up in 2006 for the specific purpose of economic development – attracting new companies to Cincinnati and creating jobs.
The account is funded by a $750,000 contribution by Cinergy Corp., as part of a settlement over its merger with Duke Energy.
"As I see my job and as I promised people I would do if elected, I'm a pitchman. I sell the city," Mallory said. "I take the message of the greatness of Cincinnati around the world."
And since Mallory was first elected in 2005, he's done just that. Past destinations have included China, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and the Ukraine.
In all, Mallory has taken more than five dozen trips during his past 7 1/2 years in office. Now in his second term, Mallory will leave office in December due to term limits.
The trips are coming under renewed criticism at a time when the city is contemplating laying off workers, letting fire trucks sit idle, cutting services and closing some swimming pools due to financial problems.
"When we're up on that podium talking about layoffs at council meetings, it's not the time to be flying around the world," said City Councilman Christopher Smitherman.
A vocal Mallory critic, Smitherman said it's irrelevant whether the trip's funding came from the Cinergy account or the city's General Fund for operations.
"If it's donated to the city, it's taxpayer money," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's a different pot of money."
Such globe-hopping hurts morale among the workforce at City Hall, Smitherman added.
"[The mayor] is saying we can do those types of things but we don't have the dollars for our operating costs," he said. "It's the optics and symbolism of flying first class while people are losing their jobs.
"It just shouldn't be done."
The councilman is referring to Mallory's round-trip airplane ticket to Spain, which cost $3,133. The mayor's ticket was for a first-class seat. His four staffers flew in coach seats at a cost of $1,462 each.
Mallory said he always had planned to reimburse the city for the difference in cost between a first class and coach seat.
A receipt provided to WCPO Digital as part of its public records request shows Mallory gave the city a check for that reimbursement on April 25 – weeks after WCPO began making inquiries.
WCPO Digital first requested information about the trip Feb. 25 and made a formal, more specific request for documents on March 29. The records were made available on May 7.
Earlier this month, Mallory canceled a planned trip to Tokyo. The city bought a first class ticket for $5,854, which will be refunded.
The Tokyo trip was scuttled after city council scheduled budget hearings for this month, the mayor said.
Documents also show that Mallory has the use of a city "procurement card" – similar to a credit card. The card is used for expenses related to the mayor's job like business dinners, taxis and some travel expenses.
Next page: List of expenses, and city policy
Attempts to decipher what expenses were directly tied to the Spain trip were complicated by what appeared to be record-keeping issues.
A voucher cover sheet for the February statement has a hand-written note by a city staffer:
"Many receipts missing – hard to break out and separate into logical format."
Documents reveal the Spain trip's expenses included:
• $9,933 air travel;
• $9,103 lodging;
• $1,856 miscellaneous expenses for the four staffers;
• $117 for a custom-made Cincinnati flag to present as a gift to Spanish officials;
• An unspecified amount for five iPhone 4S international telephones used by the entourage.
Staff members who traveled with Mallory included: Ryan Adcock, the mayor's legislative affairs director, who has since quit for another job; Jason Barron, public affairs director; Shawn Butler, community affairs director and a City Council candidate; and Arlen Herrell, international affairs director.
Records show it cost $8,984 to fly Mallory and the four staffers round-trip to Spain. Also, while the group was there, it spent $948 to travel by plane from Bilbao to Madrid, which is a 199-mile trip.
The five people in the mayor's group also stayed at four- and five-star hotels.
• $4,940 for three nights at The Westin Palace Madrid;
• $1,723 for two nights at Hotel Wellington in Madrid;
• $1,056 for one night at Hotel De Londes in San Sebastian;
• $1,384 for three nights at the NH Gran Hotel in Zaragoza.
While in San Sebastian, Mallory stayed in a "sea view junior suite" that overlooked the scenic Bay of Biscay.
The group also paid extra for wireless Internet access in their rooms.
Chris Eilerman, an assistant to the city manager who oversees Cincinnati's streetcar project, also traveled with the group. His expenses totaled $3,053, of which $1,452 was for airfare.
Eilerman, however, doesn't work for the mayor's office and his expenses were reimbursed from federal grants allocated specifically for the streetcar project.
Frequent Flyer Miles?
The city has policies in place on travel.
There is a policy for city workers – but not the mayor's office or council offices – that prohibits the use of first class seats or accumulating frequent flyer miles for work-related travel.
City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. outlined the policy in an April 19 email to a city councilman: "City policy does not permit first class travel for city employees … Additionally, policy does not allow individuals to accrue, keep, or use, frequent flyer miles."
Eilerman's expense reports show he earned 8,971 frequent flier miles on the Spain trip.
City documents indicate the trip's idea originated with Eilerman, after CAF – the manufacturer of five streetcars at a cost of $20.5 million – invited him to visit their factory.
In a memo, Eilerman wrote the trip's purpose was "to attend a series of kickoff meetings and conceptual design review meetings in Spain for the production of streetcar vehicles" bought by the city.
Eilerman was invited by Ignacio Olivera, CAF's program manager.
In a letter to Eilerman, Olivera wrote, "CAF USA strongly believes that it would be most advantageous for the city to hold this first meeting at the Zaragoza facility in Spain.
"Frankly, there is no substitute for the direct experience you will get if we hold this meeting in Spain," Olivera added.
At some point, though, the mayor decided to join the trip and schedule meetings with other Spanish companies, hoping to persuade them to bring business to the Queen City.
While preparing for the trip, the mayor's staff quickly began scheduling appointments for him in Spain.
In a Feb. 19 email from Arlen Herrell to a CAF executive, he wrote:
"Looking at the agenda, we noticed that the Mayor has a lot of free time on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Do you have any suggestions on companies we could meet with during the down time? Looks like we have from about 10:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. that could be used for some type of meetings."
Also, Herrell set up meetings with the ambassador to Spain on Feb. 22 and with Madrid's mayor on March 1.
Next page: Are the trips worth it?
Mallory strongly defends his trip, as well as taking the staffers.
"We did an awful lot," the mayor said. "We visited eight different cities, four different companies, met the ambassador to Spain.
"We had a lot of coordinating to do and a lot of people to talk to," Mallory said. "Frankly, (the streetcar) is the most important project I'm involved with."
The controversial streetcar project is designed to help spark redevelopment of properties along its route, as similar projects have done in other cities, Mallory said. A study estimates it will generate about $2.50 for every $1 invested.
Mallory touts the new business that his past trips have brought to the region.
For example, his trip to China in 2010 convinced Global Bio Chem, a corn processor, to expand its U.S. operations, he said. The firm had one worker at a sales office, which it expanded to seven. It went from $7 million in sales during 2011 to $30 million last year.
And Mallory's two trips to Saudi Arabia – in 2009 and 2012 – resulted in bringing more clients to Solutions Plus Inc., a supplier of industrial cleaning products.
But critics note that neither business is located within city limits – Global Bio Chem is in Blue Ash, while Solutions Plus is in Amelia.
"The mayor is not the mayor of the region, he's the mayor of Cincinnati," said Tom Brinkman Jr., a Mount Lookout resident who heads the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).
"He needs to focus on doing things for the people of Cincinnati," he added.
Also, Mallory credits his travels with helping Cincinnati land several major conventions in recent years, including the Shriners and the National Urban League. In all, the conventions had an economic impact of $42.7 million.
Brinkman, who served as a state representative in Columbus while Mallory was in the state senate, is skeptical about the purpose of Mallory's travels.
"I know Mark Mallory. He's doing it for fun," Brinkman said.
Mallory counters that selling the city as a great place to do business is an integral part of the mayor's job, and urges his replacement to follow his example.
"The mayor needs to do a fair amount of travel," Mallory said. "Whoever is our next mayor needs to continue that."
When Mallory plans a trip, he isn't always sure how it will be paid until after the fact. Some of his trips are paid by private groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
Most of the money spent on travel hasn't come from the city's General Fund – used to pay for operating expenses -- although some has, the mayor said.
"Most of the money I've used to travel could not have been used to hire police or firefighters," Mallory said. "For the Spain trip, in particular, none of that money came from the General Fund."
Although the mayor doesn't rule out using General Fund money for future trips, Mallory conceded he probably will travel less during his last few months in office.
"I don't want to make anyone believe we're not willing to spend any money from the General Fund," Mallory said. "It's brought so much back [to Cincinnati].
"With resources getting tighter, the criteria for where I go is going to change," he said. "But it's important to lay the groundwork for future growth."