Mayoral candidate asks for city of Houston's financial documents

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A city the size of Houston spends money on all sorts of things just to keep it moving. The city spends $4.9 billion every year, much of it on salaries and easy to understand items.

However, digging into city records from the last fiscal year, you can find expenditures like $21,680 on orthodontics, $4,306 with DirectTV and $59,081 on FedEx.

It is relatively easy to see what orthodontists, satellite TV and shipping companies provide, but the same city records show the city sent checks to "General One Time Vendors" totaling $6,216,537 in just one fiscal year.

It's hard to tell what was specifically purchased with those funds and mayoral candidate Bill King wants to know more.

"We just want to know what the money's been spent on, who it's been spent with and what was the justification for the expenditure," King told reporters at his campaign headquarters Tuesday. "What did we get for that money that we spent?"

King filed a public information request with the city for the details on $400 million Houston spent less than $50,000 without council approval. That's the level at which a payment needs city council approval.

King requested the contracts behind the spending. Weeks later, the city sent back an estimate. It would cost King about $2.8 million to pull the contracts and copy them, the bulk of it for labor expenses, which are legally allowable.

"If you work that out, that's 75 people working for an entire year, every day of the year," King said. "Now there's a couple of things potentially going on here. One is that there's something so bad in these documents that they're desperate not to disclose it, in which case, they've given us this ridiculous bill to keep us from getting the documents. And then the other thing is that he's really signed enough contracts in the last three years it would take 75 people a year to copy them, to get both of those are sort of equally disturbing to me."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's office told ABC13 in a written statement many of the expenditures were not by contract but by purchase order.

As for the cost to turn the documents over, Turner's office tells ABC13, "Under state law, (the Department of) Finance and the Controller's Office ran searches to determine how much information existed so that they could create a cost estimate. The estimate was based off information from the Finance department that 533,299 purchase orders were made during the requested time period that were under $50,000. State law allows TPIA document production fees for labor, copying and postage. In this case, most of the charges are based on state-approved hourly labor rates."

When this first came up at a city council meeting weeks ago, Tantri Emo, Houston's director of finance, wrote Mayor Turner and City Council informing them that 88% of the payments were previously approved by council. The payments were included in the list as they were below $50,000 individually.

According to Emo's memo, "$48.1 million of the payments were made without requirement of council action for FY2018. Included in these payments were contracts under $50,000 and other payments such as unemployment, refunds, fees and workers compensation."

Emo pledged more information once additional analysis is completed.

King said he will not pay the $2.8 million to get the documents.

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