May 19, 2014

StanCOG to weigh dropping hotel price limit

Stanislaus Council of Governments leaders are considering doing away with the hotel room price limit in a formal travel policy for their workers after an auditor noted two exceptions in the last fiscal year and suggested managers exert better spending control.

Should transportation employees spend more than $225 for a hotel room?

Stanislaus Council of Governments leaders used to think not and put that limit in a formal travel policy for their workers. But an auditor noted two exceptions in the last fiscal year and suggested managers exert better spending control.

Instead, management wants to remove the limit altogether.

Carlos Yamzon, StanCOG’s executive director, said he was forced to fork out more than $225 at a Washington, D.C., conference, and another employee paid a higher-than-normal rate for a late reservation in San Diego. Yamzon said he also spent more than allowed on a Sacramento room the auditor didn’t catch, on a night when rooms were scarce because of a big rodeo.

“The per-night limit is not practical in all situations,” reads a response to the auditor’s findings. Yamzon said he spoke about the issue with StanCOG’s executive committee, whose members agreed that Yamzon and his deputy should have authority to oversee such spending decisions with no formal limit.

For comparison, Monday’s cheapest rate for Modesto’s most exclusive lodging at the DoubleTree Hotel was $129, and Friday and Saturday nights generally go for $109.

The audit appears on Wednesday’s agenda for the StanCOG policy board, composed of representatives from Stanislaus County and its nine cities.

Other agenda items include:

• Paying a consultant an extra $1 million to complete key studies for a future freeway segment west of downtown Modesto.

A draft environmental document on a new alignment of Highway 132, just south of Kansas Avenue, should come out in the fall, about a year later than initially expected because of concerns over barium contamination in the soil. Meanwhile, state transportation officials required lots more work on plans for the bypass’s interchange at Carpenter Road, a connection with Needham Street and Highway 99’s Kansas Avenue offramp. Also, studies previously conducted have a short shelf life and must be updated.

Jacobs Engineering landed a $4.5 million contract in 2009 and got that bumped to $5.19 million in a previous amendment. Figuring that the extra work would equate to about 45 percent of preconstruction design rather than 30 percent, the firm asked StanCOG for $1.38 million more. But Yamzon reviewed the request, sharpened his pencil and recommended paying Jacobs $1 million more, bringing the contract to $6.25 million.

The fall documents should say whether state scientists recommend capping the contaminated soil and building the four-lane expressway over it or hauling the earth elsewhere.

• Adopting a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

StanCOG’s spending plan is expected to plunge 47 percent because the agency is wrapping up several expensive projects or already has secured funding for others. They include Highway 132 documents, a pavement survey and a feasibility study for a future South County Corridor linking Highway 99 at Turlock to Interstate 5 at Patterson.

• Receiving information on a regional rideshare program, including how many county residents participate in Commute Connection van pools, rideshare matching and related services, and how the local program stacks up against others in the San Joaquin Valley. StanCOG has been hiring the San Joaquin Council of Governments to run the program and would pay $195,000 in the coming year if StanCOG board members agree. Commute Connection enables StanCOG to receive $7 million each year in federal air quality money.
• Holding public hearings on the agency’s Regional Transportation Plan, Sustainable Communities Strategy and Federal Transportation Improvement Plan.

The policy board will convene in an informal workshop at 4 p.m. Wednesday, partly to debrief on a March decision not to ask voters this year for a half-cent transportation tax. The session will be held in the Ceres Community Center, 2701 Fourth St., Ceres, and will be followed at 6 p.m. by the regular policy board meeting. For more information, see www.stancog.org/pdf/policy-board/agendas/2014/pb-agenda-05-21-2014.pdf.

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