I-Team: Water Authority Spends Thousands of Tax Dollars for Travel

LAS VEGAS -- For the past few years, water officials have scolded Las Vegas area residents to cut back on water consumption, remove their lawns, and stop washing cars. Even though the public has conserved water, the rates keep going up.

That's because the water agencies say they need to compensate for the drop in revenue. But as the public has made sacrifices, the agencies often have not. Case in point: their travel budgets.

We've reported in the past about spending by water agencies -- millions for P.R. campaigns, consultants, lobbyists, cattle ranches, even sheep. Now that the boom years have ended, the water authority has been forced to change its free spending ways, but only to an extent.

The I-Team filed a series of public records requests to see what water agency leaders have been spending and where they have been going.

See Pat Mulroy's travel expenses

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak had no idea just how many miles water officials have been racking up until we showed him the expense reports from the last three years.

Individual trips taken by Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy or her longtime deputy Kay Brothers don't require approval from the boards that oversees the water agencies. Sisolak was surprised not only by the dollar amounts but the exotic locales.

"They go to nice locations. They're not going to Des Moines or Chicago or Grand Rapids," he said.

The records show they have gone to Chicago, but its among their least expensive destinations.

See Kay Brothers' travel expenses

Mulroy has become a water celebrity of sorts -- a much sought-after speaker at conferences both foreign and domestic -- and there's one being held somewhere pretty much every week.

During 2008, Mulroy took 21 out of town trips, including four out of the country. In one five month stretch, she visited Zurich, Switzerland, Singapore, Stockholm, Sweden and Vienna, Austria.

Some of the costs were covered by the event host, but the dollar amounts listed are those paid by the taxpayer. During the same year, Mulroy's deputy Kay Brothers took 18 domestic trips, including $1,400 for two days in San Francisco, $1,900 for five days in Washington, and $1,500 for six days in Santa Fe.

During that year, water rates in Las Vegas were increased twice and water customers were asked to cut back on their consumption.

"Where I've got a problem is when you are asking my rate-payers again to conserve water when we've raised the rates twice in 19 months and then spend the money on travel. It doesn't seem an adequate use of the resources," said Sisolak.

"Like every other business organization in the valley, we are in a different world now. Our travel costs over the last two to three years have dropped more than two thirds," said Scott Huntley with the SNWA.

Huntley says the water agencies simply can't afford to travel as they did in years past. Overall, travel expenses were cut in half from 2008 to 2009, and then were cut again.

Yet even in 2009, Mulroy and Brothers had 44 out of town trips and thru June of 2010, they took 19. Huntley defends the travel saying the world can learn plenty from how southern Nevada has coped with drought and climate change.

Mulroy's trip to Singapore, for instance, gave her a chance to learn as well.

"From going to a conference, we pick up information on what other countries are doing -- Australia with desalination, for instance," said Huntley.

Ironically, although Mulroy went to Singapore to learn about desalination, her agency paid for ads back home which disparaged its potential to help Nevada. During the Singapore outing, Mulroy paid more than $600 for dinner at Raffles, known for its 'timeless elegance," its $100 steaks, and $45 appetizers.

The trip to Sweden was taken, Huntley says, because SNWA was a finalist for a water award, which is why he says board member and North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck came along, in case they won. Buck's tab came to more than $7,500. She took two other water trips, too. The trip to Vienna was followed by a jaunt to Hollywood to debut a documentary financed by SNWA.

Even domestic trips can get expensive when one stays at the Ritz Carlton, which Mulroy does. Credit card records show Mulroy also pays for expensive meals without leaving town -- nearly $600 for dinner at a local steakhouse, more than $500 for chow at Bellagio, nearly $200 for a meal at Olive Garden.

Huntley says there is internal oversight of such expenses.

"Our policy is that any reimbursement must be appropriate and reasonable for the purpose," he said.

But who looks at the bills submitted by the boss?

"On her travel, a board member must sign off on travel arrangements in advance. Those are viewed by the finance department after they come back. It's what comes back to appropriate and reasonable," said Huntley.

Mulroy earns close to $300,000 a year and while it's great she can help the rest of the world learn about drought, it's not clear how that benefits the folks here who pay her salary.

SNWA says it agrees that in the age of teleconferencing and Skype, there isn't as much of a need for travel, which is one reason they have cut back. Commissioner Sisolak thinks there need to be clear rules for the water agencies about spending on travel and meals. He might propose some.

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