An examination of discretionary funds by The Arizona Republic also found that the money was used to pay for more run-of-the-mill expenses like photos, picture frames, candy for a parade and appreciation plaques.
Supporters of discretionary funds say they are a useful tool and can pay for neighborhood projects, charity donations, lobbying trips and training for newly elected leaders.
Some critics say politicians can use the money to take pricey trips or raise their profile by splurging on favored projects in their districts.
A discretionary account is a pool of money set aside for an individual council member to use at his or her discretion.
It’s a common practice among city councils around the country. Ten metro Phoenix cities, including Phoenix, Peoria, Glendale, Mesa, Chandler and Avondale, maintain discretionary funds, which range from $500 to more than $30,000 a year.
The money accounts for a small fraction of overall city budgets.
Most communities have discretionary-fund policies, though they vary widely in the level of oversight. Some cities won’t cut a check unless an expense meets discretionary-fund rules. Others merely ask council members to provide receipts.
The Republic examined council and mayor discretionary funds with travel and capital spending for fiscal years 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Other city councils in metro Phoenix without discretionary funds pay for these expenses through the budget process. The Republic didn’t examine those budgets.
The Republic analysis shows that about 15 percent of discretionary funds were spent on travel and conference-related expenses in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Officials in metro-Phoenix cities without discretionary funds also use taxpayer money to travel but do it through the budget process.
Local leaders who support the out-of-town trips say they help cement federal support for local programs. Conferences help council members learn how to better represent their constituents.
Still, supporters and critics said benefits of such travel can be hard to quantify.
Some city leaders pour discretionary funds into neighborhoods, using it to pay for projects that might not otherwise receive funding. The money can pay to stucco old walls, paint graffiti-covered fences, and help local homeowners associations pay for improvements.
Council members say this is often an ideal way to spend the money, making small, badly needed upgrades in their community.
Ethics experts warn that this kind of spending may encourage council members to use the money for political advantage.