UTA spent nearly $500,000 on food in a year, calling into question use of public money

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A TRAX train approaches the Sandy Civic Center in Sandy on June 24, 2019. UTA, the governing agency, is being criticized for spending nearly a half-million dollars on food in one year.

The Utah Transit Authority runs not only on diesel, compressed natural gas and electricity for its buses and trains. It also buys a lot of food to fuel its bosses and employees.

UTA spent at least $456,905 last year — just under a half-million dollars — for catered meals and snacks from ice cream to pizza at such things as board meetings, manager huddles, holiday parties, meetings with outside partners and regulators and a variety of other gatherings.

That averages out to $175 for each of UTA’s 2,600 employees. The food bill amounted to 0.11% of the agency’s $403 million operations budget.

That doesn’t count the $282,750 spent on gift cards for employees ($120 each) at Harmons grocery stores given as Thanksgiving gifts. (Some other gifts last year included $8,835 for pocket watches to FrontRunner workers to mark that line’s 10th anniversary, and $4,625 in Megaplex theater gift cards for all FrontRunner employees.)

That is according to data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request, online public finance data and extra disclosures volunteered by the agency.

UTA officials defend the food expenses, saying they boost morale, help retain workers in a tight labor market and reward workers who give up meal breaks for working lunches or who travel long distances for meetings.

But critics question the spending, especially after years of controversy over high executive salaries, extensive international travel and other spending that led the Legislature to restructure the agency. The food spending came in the first year after lawmakers took such action.

One who questions the expenditures is Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who recently criticized the agency online, arguing that spending up to $15,000 this month to give away $5 lunch vouchers to thank the public for its patience during recent construction “is not how public money should be spent.”

About the half-million spent on food last year, she now says, “UTA needs to focus on core services. On the heels of the restructure, using taxpayer dollars on anything that won’t help core services does not rebuild public trust.”

(Photo courtesy of Aimee Winder Newton) Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the House sponsor of the UTA reform law, said some spending on food is normal and useful for businesses and governments — but UTA’s totals sound a bit high. So he is asking the agency for more information.

“To say they shouldn’t do any of that I think is unrealistic," he said. “But is it too high? That is the question we need to answer.”

Tracking the spending

Some UTA employees who tipped off The Tribune about the spending complained that managers routinely have their meetings catered.

UTA Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer acknowledges that lunch is provided at a monthly managers’ meeting that draws about 120 people — but says the catering usually amounts to sandwiches and sides, not a fancier spread. Still, he says, “It’s significant, it’s a couple of thousand [dollars] every time they hold that.”

UTA Communications Director Andrea Packer said that meeting brings people together from Ogden to Provo. “The most convenient time to gather is over lunch,” so the agency feeds them as they skip a normal lunch break to work.

Meyer notes that individual managers have leeway on how to use their office budgets, including choosing when to provide food for their workers. The only guidance is that “we ask our people to be reasonable about it — that it’s not catered with silverware, that sort of thing, maybe a box lunch.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) UTA Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer on June 11, 2018.

Documents show, as an example, that the 23-employee UTA Capital Development Office spent at least $8,422 on food for 37 events, about one every week and a half. Roughly two-thirds of the meetings were with outside groups or regulators to discuss project proposals or progress on those underway.

That office’s spending included $654 for a Christmas activity at Salt Lake Social Axe Throwing — where people can throw axes at targets while they drink soda and eat. (The club only started serving beer last May when it was finally granted a state license.)

Other examples of events by that office include $561 for Elizabeth’s Custom Café to cater a breakfast and snack for a two-day triennial review workshop at UTA headquarters; $325 from Rockwell Ice Cream for a contractor appreciation event; $691 from Red Deli in Provo for a contractor appreciation lunch; and $318 to Red Iguana for a meeting to discuss a Davis County bus-rapid transit line.

UTA held a large Pioneer Day picnic for all employees in 2018 and paid the Midvale Mining Café $37,666 to cater it.

Packer said UTA held some other large holiday events for employees. Larger receipts include $3,799 to Red Flame catering for a holiday celebration, and $13,569 to Kessimakis Produce for a contract to provide food for meetings.

The Tribune noticed through the years that the former 16-member, part-time UTA board — which was disbanded by legislative order last November — used to have lunches provided at many of its monthly meetings.

Packer said that occurred mostly on days when its members also attended numerous committee meetings through the day.

The new replacement three-member, full-time board has not had such meals at its regular weekly meetings.

UTA defends its practices

Meyer, the interim executive director, says much of the food for employees is for working lunches.

“I get an hour of their time,” he says. “So, I think the value proposition is pretty good.”

He said the agency has 2,600 employees spread around six counties, and bringing groups together often requires providing a meal or snacks. “It’s important for people to get together, to know each other and be able to have a relationship so they can share ideas and have a conversation. There’s value in that.”

He said much of the food bill also goes for all-day or lunch meetings with regulators or planners from around the state. He said UTA will often take turns paying for meals with other agencies involved.

Meyer says if the agency stopped all food purchases, it could not quite buy one bus. A new diesel-powered bus costs about $550,000, he said.

Beth Holbrook, a member of the new UTA board, who assumed office last November, also sees the spending on food as helping to improve morale, and said it may help retain employees when competition for them is keen at a time of low unemployment rates.

“It’s probably pretty well spent ,” she said. “It’s a way to, I think, make sure that they know that they’re appreciated.”

About feeding employees at working lunches, she says, “Instead of going off to lunch somewhere, you are getting their attention and they are working on things. I do think that ultimately there’s a value-add to that.”

Still, she says she will watch the food spending to see what totals look like at the end of the year, and whether changes are needed.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the lead sponsor of legislation that restructured UTA, said lawmakers also will be watching.

“It may be OK, but that does seem a bit high,” he said about the half-million-dollar food tab. “We’d have to find out exactly what they’re doing and why. But we need to make sure as much money goes to operations and maintenance as possible.”