City coffer empty; council stomachs full

Steaks, baked potatoes, and fancy deserts: tax payers bought that meal. But taxpayers bought more just like it for Memphis City Council members and their staff, literally eating up your tax dollars. When Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton laid out his latest budget proposal last December, he made one thing very clear: It's time to cut the fat. But when Council members sat down to work out where to start, they did it on full stomachs. Full of food paid for by the public.

Action News 5 poured over hundreds of recent expense reports. Our investigation found taxpayers have shelled out nearly $33,000 to cover City Council's catering tabs over the last two years. When we asked if that was reonable, here's what one council member said: "No I don't and frankly I'm surprised until you showed me this, Aaron, that we even had this kind of food bill around here," said council member Tom Marshall.

Dozens of bills for three, four, five, even six hundred dollars to cater single meals for up to 30 people. Hot meals, meals with pricey menus, and in one case $529 worth of Outback Steakhouse.

"I'm not thinking that we need to have a steak and baked potato up here. Peanut butter and crackers is fine with me," said council member E.C. Jones.

We didn't find any peanut butter, but we did find seven dollar per person breakfasts, $14 per person lunch buffets, and $12 for gallons of coffee. Most of the money is spent to feed the Council on days members say they and their staff work through back to back meetings without a break.

"No one expects you to stay there all day without having something as far as a lunch to eat," Jones said.

But we found taxpayers are feeding council members meals off the clock, too. Like a $4,000 Christmas party last December at the swanky Folk's Folly. Council Members, their spouses, and their staff gobbled up $65 New York strip steaks, ribeye steaks, and filet mignon, along with free range chicken, salmon, plus a few $20 lobster tails. All that came to nearly $2,600 dollars alone in food. They washed it all down with 28 bottles of wine. Taxpayers got stuck with the $619 bar bill and the $667 dollar tip.

We tried to talk to then Council president Joe Brown about the party and why council catering bills nearly doubled under his administration, but he wouldn't comment. Current president Edmund Ford brushed us off too. He called our questions "irrelevant." Ford then told us, off camera, that "the food is not an issue to me," and he "doesn't see a problem with it."

Though in a tough budget year some of his colleagues do.

"If we don't begin here, then what we say and what we do in the future months that has to do with critical funding won't matter to people, because they will not see us leading by example," said Tom Marshall.

Action News 5 spoke to Councilmen Myron Lowery and Ricky Peete, and both said they don't feel the catering fees were excessive. Though they did express concern over how much was shelled out for that Christmas party.

After we questioned Council President Ford about the party, he dug into his own pocket to reimburse taxpayers for the bar tab but you're still paying for the thousands of dollars of steaks and lobster they ate.