RICHMOND (WRIC)—The holidays may be long gone, but if you're a resident of the City of Richmond, you're still paying for them.
ABC 8 News Anchor and Investigative Reporter Kerri O'Brien has uncovered that thousands of taxpayer dollars were used to pay for some fancy holiday parties for city employees last month.
It's common for employers to thank their employees for a year of hard work with a holiday party. But how much is too much to spend on an end-of-year celebration? Should your tax dollars fund dinners at the Omni and a casino night?
In December the City of Richmond lit up with holiday cheer, and city employees were certainly dealt some merriment: crab fondue, jumbo shrimp and steak skewers—these are just some of the mouthwatering menu items city workers were treated to on the taxpayers' dime at some rather nice holiday parties.
Richmond's troubled Department of Social Services held a fancy affair inside the Omni Richmond Hotel's James River Room. The spread included a fruit and cheese display, potato bar and turkey with all the fixings. The bill for the food alone rang up at more than $9,000.
They raised the fun with a casino night: poker tables, craps tables and blackjack dealers were all shuffled in, and you can bet it was a blast. But the entire party cost you, the taxpayer, more than $11,000.
"It's certainly not the way I'd like to know that my tax dollars are being spent," said Jerry Bistline, a Richmond resident. "When I think of the things that the city could use the money on, instead of parties at the Omni and that kind of food—not a good idea."
The holiday celebrations didn't stop there. The Department of Public Utilities spent more than $10,500 on holiday parties. Each division—stormwater, wastewater and communications—had its own celebration.
"That's a lot of money," said Richmond resident Patty Loyde. "For-profit companies don't even spend that kind of money on holiday parties anymore."
The city's Department of Economic & Community Development was treated to a lovely spread. On the menu were elegant imported cheeses, beef and gorgonzola wrapped in bacon, and jumbo shrimp for a total of more than $3,400.
And not to be forgotten, the mayor's executive team partied at CenterStage's Rhythm Hall for a tab of close to $4,000.
All in all, the cash-strapped City of Richmond spent nearly $30,000 in public funds on holiday parties for its employees.
ABC 8 News obtained the receipts for the holiday parties through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared those invoices with City Council President Charles Samuels. He was shocked.
"We've been told time and time again there's nothing left to be cut out of the budget, there's no more fat on these bones, when we cut the budget this year we're going to be really cutting into services, and then I hear this? It's greatly concerning," Samuels said. "We didn't know about it. There is no line item in the budget that specifically says holiday party fund or anything like that."
ABC 8 News did some comparing and found the City of Richmond spent five times more on holiday parties than any other surrounding locality.
Henrico County had food brought into a county building for $2,500. The City of Colonial Heights spent about $4,000 on an employee luncheon. The City of Petersburg had a band and food for employees at a city building for $5,500. Both Chesterfield and Hanover counties said they didn't spend a dime on parties; they don't use public funds for holiday celebrations.
Rick Tatnall is part of the city watchdog group Better Government Richmond. He calls Richmond's parties excessive.
"It makes me mad. It shows that there is just a lack of consideration for the citizens of Richmond," Tatnall said. "I think that some of the expenditures that you showed me are inappropriate, particularly the Department of Social Services' expenditures and a casino night on a holiday party, I think, is unconscionable. I don't understand how that could possibly have happened."
ABC 8 News questioned Richmond's Acting Director of Social Services, Becky China, about that big party and casino night at the Omni.
"City leaders keep saying to taxpayers that we've stripped this budget as much as we can, yet we're spending $11,000 on a party at the Omni; it sounds excessive," O'Brien said.
"Yeah, I don't know what to say," China said. "I used to be in the private sector, and they spend a whole lot more than that."
China says the party was part of an effort to boost morale, and that the city does have an $18,000 budget just for employee appreciation.
"This was all about helping a group of people who work tirelessly, giving and giving and giving," China said. "$11,000 to help, you know, 300 to 400 people you feel like you appreciate them is probably, in the grand scheme of things when you talk about long-term investment … personally I wouldn't have any trouble defending that."
China adds that each guest had to pay $5 to attend, which raised $1,300 toward the bill. She also says DSS hadn't had a holiday party in eight years.
"So, not likely to happen next year?" O'Brien asked.
"Well, not at $11,000, it probably won't," China answered.
ABC 8 News also questioned Director of Public Utilities Bob Steidel about DPU's share of the party bill.
"DPU alone spent $10,500 on holiday parties for its employees this past December, seems like a lot of money," O'Brien said.
"These aren't parties, these are either recognition or celebration events," Steidel said.
Steidel adds that the DPU Christmas luncheon and holiday banquet is really about rewarding the department's 700 employees for their hard work all year.
"It's a way that we can recognize and celebrate our employees when we don't have times when we give them salary increases and we do salary adjustments," Steidel said.
"For a city that is cash strapped every year and looking at a shortfall again this year, isn't there a way to do it where the cost is not so much?" O'Brien asked. "Maybe you shouldn't rent out a lodge?"
"These are public dollars and we have to be stewards of them and we understand that," Steidel said. "I think it's an appropriate amount."
Samuels said, "I think City Council needs to have a serious talk with the administration about what's happened here."
ABC 8 News tried for several days to get an interview with Richmond's CAO Byron Marshall to talk about the nearly $30,000 the city used for these parties, but he couldn't seem to fit us into his schedule.
This investigation all started with a viewer tip. If you have a story for Anchor/Investigative Reporter Kerri O'Brien to look into, email her at KerriInvestigates@wric.com, like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter (@Kerri8News).
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