CINCINNATI - Cincinnati taxpayers have spent nearly $160,000 for Mayor Mark Mallory to take 111 trips over the last 7½ years, according to records analyzed by WCPO Digital.
Mallory has made 92 trips to U.S. cities and 19 trips to other nations, according to records. The mayor said the trips were necessary to promote the Queen City and also has brought more than $164 million in estimated economic development to the city.
The mayor’s travel and spending has come under increasing scrutiny in the last several months as the city struggled with how to deal with an anticipated $35 million budget deficit in 2014.
During those budget discussions, Cincinnati City Council voted to use one of the accounts that funded the travel in order to move $107,500 into the city’s General Fund. That action helped the city avoid laying off police officers and firefighters.
Private groups have also paid for some of the mayor’s travel expenses. For example, two trips were paid completely by foreign governments – France and Taiwan.
But according to travel records, Mallory has used his office budget and other city accounts to travel to China and Germany three times each. He has taken two trips each to France, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. He has traveled once each to Japan, Singapore and the Ukraine.
He decided to cancel another trip to Japan last month when it fell during budget negotiations.
Closer to home, the mayor has traveled 39 times to Washington, D.C., including for the 2013 inauguration of President Obama; five times each to Chicago and Las Vegas; twice to New Orleans; and once each to Key West and Palm Beach, among others.
For Mallory, the trips are part of the mayor’s job: Making sure Cincinnati’s top elected official is cultivating relationships with powerful politicians and business leaders so the Queen City is on their short list when doling out money or considering a relocation.
“The charter says the mayor shall be recognized as the official head and representative of the city for all purposes,” Mallory said.
“I take that seriously, I take it literally,” he said. “It’s not meant to just been seen in the city. It’s to be a global ambassador.”
Critics, however, counter that Mallory’s trips have borne little substantive benefit for the city and is more about advancing his personal prospects once he leaves the mayor’s office in December.
“I receive a lot of calls from upset members about it,” said Kathy Harrell, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.
“They’re about to lose their jobs and here (the mayor) is traveling to Spain for the streetcar,” she said. “It’s troubling to me. It definitely hurts morale.”
Multiple Accounts Pay For Travel
Mallory’s publicly-funded travel is paid using multiple city accounts.
• $75,610 of the expenses came out of the mayor’s office budget.
• $70,863 came from a “Business and Jobs Attraction” account created from a $1 million settlement with Cinergy Corp. The fund was established to help with the city’s economic development efforts.
• $11,716 came from the Economic Development Department’s budget or from the City Manager’s Office budget.
Various other organizations and groups paid for another $52,777 for Mallory to attend their events. Those ranged from the National Urban League and Sister Cities International to the American Jewish Conference and the Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Additionally, the French Embassy paid $2,991 in 2008 for Mallory to attend an environmental summit in Paris; and the Taiwanese government paid an unspecified amount in 2010 for a similar meeting in Taipei.
What Did Travel Generate?
Mallory credits his travel with:
• Securing $85,000 in grants for Cincinnati for projects like the Mill Creek Educational Forest Garden, Youth Jobs Financial Literacy Education and an early reading initiative.
• Helping get $121.4 million in federal appropriations that paid for/helped pay for Smale Riverfront Park, police radios, the creation of bike paths, cleaning the Queen City Barrel site and replacing Waldvogel Viaduct, which connects downtown to Price Hill.
• Persuading nine groups to hold their conventions here, for a combined economic impact of $42.6 million, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau
The Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine staged one of the conventions; it brought $10.6 million in business to the city, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Mallory had flown to Atlanta to pitch Cincinnati to the group. Its president later said the mayor’s visit “sealed the deal.”
“You have to put yourself on the radar screen and you have to build relationships,” Mallory said.
“These people have to know who you are, they have to know what you’re doing,’ he added. “They need to see we’re on the move so they will think of Cincinnati the next time there is a big project or some federal money on the table.”
Next page: Luken: ‘I Thought My Job Was Here’
The city has a Convention and Visitors Bureau funded by a hotel tax and that also gets additional funding from City Hall each year, they counter. And the city spends about $120,000 annually on a lobbyist in Washington.
“All of this travel is outside the boundary of the norm,” said Councilman Christopher Smitherman. “What was our return on investment? If you flew there, what did we get for it?
“I think the Convention and Visitors Bureau has done a great job and they include the right players to close these deals,” he said.
WCPO Digital contacted six comparably sized cities to ask about how often their mayors travel and how expenses are handled.
Five of the cities – Lexington, Ky.; Newark, N.J.; Pittsburgh; St. Paul, Minn.; and Toledo – either didn’t return calls and emails, or declined comment.
A representative from the sixth – St. Louis – did respond.
“Our mayor does very little travel,” said Maggie Crane, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay. “When he does do it, it usually comes out of his campaign account. It’s a pretty negligible amount of travel.”
Mallory’s predecessor as Cincinnati mayor, Charlie Luken, also didn’t travel much while in office.
Luken was mayor from 1984-91, when the position was part of City Council and mostly ceremonial; and again from 1999-2005, as the city’s first directly elected mayor with expanded powers.
During his tenure, Luken’s foreign travel was limited to visiting Germany and Japan once, which was paid for by Sister Cities; and flying to Israel once.
“I have never found it productive in terms of generating business,” said Luken, who also is a former congressman.
“I found even trips to the (U.S. Conference of Mayors) not to be a productive use of my time or anyone’s money. I found them to be more self-promotional,” he said.
During his last mayoral term, Luken said he was focused on helping Cincinnati recover from the April 2001 riots and on items like repealing Article 12, an anti-gay charter amendment.
“After 2001, I thought my job was here,” he said. “The city was wounded and we needed to put it back together.
“We also had a recession in 2002 and had to make cutbacks at City Hall,” Luken added. “I thought it inappropriate to spend a lot of money on travel.”
Harrell and Matt Alter, who heads the local firefighters union, both agreed some travel is part of the mayor’s job. Still, the extent of Mallory’s travel disturbs them, they said.
“Obviously, that’s quite a bit of money spent on travel,” Alter said. “Excluding benefits, that’s the salaries of two firefighters for a year.
“We do realize that sometimes to make money, you need to spend money,” he said. “My hope is that it’s done wisely.”
Fund Aimed at Development
Documents show that the Business and Jobs Attraction account – created by the Cinergy settlement – and that Mallory sometimes uses to pay for travel has less than $4,000 left unallocated.
Spending from the account directly attributable to the mayor totals $49,853.
But Mallory’s travels are tallied differently than travel expenses for anyone else at City Hall, making it unclear if that number represents a complete picture of his expenses.
Documents show $431,236 in that Business and Jobs Attraction account has been spent. Another $314,776 had been “encumbered,” meaning it had been set aside for specific planned expenses – mostly planned website upgrades.
That left $3,988 unspent and unencumbered.
Since WCPO Digital began looking into how the account is used, however, City Council decided to reallocate $107,500 into the city’s General Fund for operating expenses.
The account was created in May 2006, just six months after Mallory took office. It is funded by a $750,000 contribution by Cinergy Corp., as part of a settlement to ratepayers over its merger with Duke Energy.
Cinergy actually paid the city $1 million in total. If it had chosen to do so, council could have deposited the entire amount into the city's General Fund.
Of that amount, $250,000 was put into the General Fund, which is used for city government’s operating expenses.
The remaining $750,000 funded a Business and Jobs Attraction account. The ordinance passed by City Council to create it states, “the proper city officials are authorized to make expenditures from said accounts.”
Who the “proper city officials” are, however, is left open to interpretation.
Next page: ‘It’s The Taxpayers’ Money’
Mallory flew first-class to Spain, although he later reimbursed the city for the difference in price with a coach seat. Also, the mayor and his staff stayed in four- and five-star hotels.
That type of spending continues to bother Mallory’s critics.
By comparison, local FOP officials have taken some trips out of town to lobby that the union hold its national convention in Cincinnati, Harrell noted.
“Having said that, not once did we travel first class,” Harrell said. “And we drove to Louisville and Dayton so we could get better air fares. I don’t see the mayor trying to save on costs like that.”
Smitherman said the lavish spending sends the wrong signal to city workers.
“It’s also about how you travel,” he said. “It’s about flying first class, staying at five-star hotels and eating at five-star restaurants.
“Politicians often forget this is not their money,” Smitherman added. “It’s the taxpayers’ money. It’s disheartening that the mayor is traveling better than most residents will ever travel.”
Money for Mallory’s trip to Spain came from the Cinergy account.
The trip was taken so Mallory could meet with the company building five vehicles for Cincinnati’s planned streetcar system at its factory in Zaragoza, Spain.
Numerous expenses on the spreadsheet for the Cinergy account are vague or attributed only to city-issued credit cards that are given to various employees at City Hall. Those expenses don’t cite the person who incurred them.
In its recently approved spending plan, City Council cut the mayor’s office budget by $46,660, eliminated the mayor’s $3,500 car allowance and required the mayor to take furlough days totaling $3,500.
The changes don’t take effect until the next mayor takes office in December.
“At budget time, when things are really hitting the wall, you start thinking about how you can save money,” Smitherman said.
“I don’t think Mayor Mallory is a bad person. We just have, philosophically, a difference in how we manage and view money.”
For a detailed accounting of the trips see the chart below, which was prepared by the mayor's office in response to requests by WCPO Digital: