A Local 2 investigation has uncovered dozens of trips, travel perks, even expensive meals taken by elected officials and government staff and paid for by local taxpayers.
Local 2 Investigates discovered the questionable spending at the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID). It's the same district that spent $10 million tax dollars on the Earthquest Adventures amusement park that has never got off the ground.
"It's our money," said resident Linda Ruonavar. "It's going for stuff that's frivolous. It should not be spent this way."
Ruonavar and others are concerned about 37 trips taken by elected board members and staff at EMCID in just the past 15 months.
The district collects around $6 million in sales tax each year, and it uses part of the money for economic development by bringing in new businesses to the area. To do that, board members and staff say they have to hit the road.
They have gone to trade shows and conventions from New York to Los Angeles. When they take flights, many times they stretch out on the taxpayers' dime.
Local 2 Investigates found taxpayers paid for "extra legroom" on 90 different flights in 2013 and 2014. The total cost was more than $4,000.
Taxpayers also paid the bill for a staff member's $400 hotel rooms, $1,200 for a board member to drive to a convention in Orlando, and a meal that included beer and filet mignon.
Frank McCrady, EMCID's CEO, spent tax money on dozens of meals worth anywhere from $100 to $500 with no indication of who attended the meal, what type of business was conducted or how many people were even there.
The travel tab totaled $145,000. EMCID paid an additional $100,000 in fees and payments for convention booths, promotional items and trade show registrations.
"Most of the people out here are working people," said Ruonavar. "They work hard and they come home and they trust their money is going to be spent wisely. This spending is ridiculous."
The district says trade show and convention trips convinced companies to come to EMCID's industrial park. McCrady says EMCID helped add 500 new jobs last year to the area. He says perks like extra legroom and expensive dinners are just the "nature of what we do."
"We have to follow the same rules and regulations as all elected officials, but we don't get paid," said Isidor Ybarra, a EMCID board member. "So, where's the justice? You have to go knock on these people's door. They're not going to come to you."
While it's not unusual for economic development groups to travel, we couldn't find similar-sized agencies spending as much taxpayer money on trips and entertainment.
"These are working trips," said Fred Wetz, EMCID's board chair. "These are not vacations. They never have been. When I take one of these tips, I'm taking time out of my job so I can work for my community."
Wetz says he and other volunteer board members follow strict spending rules that were put into place in 2013. However, it's clear the only people approving travel expenses are the same people taking the trips.
After Local 2 Investigates started asking questions about travel, McCrady says he updated and presented nine months of required post-trip reports to the EMCID board. It's not clear why those reports were not completed or presented before.
"It may be all fine, but as long as there's shadows, you really don't know and it's your right to know," said Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. "What you have to ask yourself is that a prudent use of taxpayer money? Are these perks for the individual or is this best value."
Combs says all taxing entities, including more than 240 special districts like EMCID, should not make taxpayers guess how and why public money is spent.
"Whether it's the city, the county, the improvement district -- every single one has an absolute fiduciary obligation I think to tell you openly, transparently, on the internet everything they're doing with your money," said Combs. "The whole point is they're taking taxpayer dollars. Are they telling people what it's being spent for and does the public know what the money is for and do they approve it?"
Credit Card Statement for CEO Frank McCrady: