A slot machine at a casino. (Photo credit: New Jersey Foundation for Aging)

Santa Ana officials have used taxpayer money to take local senior citizens on gambling junkets and winery tours, according to a spending review by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

A city service funded by the Transportation Authority and known as the Senior Mobility Program was established to shuttle elderly residents back-and-forth between their homes and the city’s two senior centers, as well as for trips to the grocery store and local attractions such as the Bower’s Museum.

But the Transportation Authority’s review found that at least $15,778 was spent on trips to places “outside of Orange County,” like San Diego’s Balboa Park, the Central Coast wine country town of Solvang, and casinos in San Diego County.

The city only pays for 20 percent of the program, which costs $179,308. The Transportation Authority covers the remaining 80 percent with revenue from Measure M2, the county’s half-percent sales tax that funds an array of public transit projects and services.

Details of the spending were made public after elderly residents, fearing that their free transportation to grocery stores was going to be cut, spoke out at a City Council meeting last week. In response to those concerns, Mayor Miguel Pulido said he supported keeping the service for fundamental needs like groceries and doctor’s appointments, and even for local excursions. But he said he couldn’t defend trips to casinos and wineries.

“Somebody abused it. I don’t know who came up with the ‘let’s go to a casino or let’s go to a winery,’” Pulido said. “But somebody did, and it’s being audited, and I just can’t defend that. I can’t as a mayor and as an [Transportation Authority] board member say, you know… give us money so we go gambling.”

The review, conducted by Rancho Cucamonga-based auditing firm of Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co., tested $57,035 worth of spending in fiscal year 2014-15.

It also found inconsistencies regarding a $5 per person fee the city was charging seniors for expenses like museum entry fees and snacks. The revenue couldn’t be accounted for and seniors contacted by the auditor said they had to pay those costs out of their own pockets.

Also, auditors couldn’t determine whether $8,600 spent on contractors providing the senior transportation service was spent appropriately because the invoices didn’t provide details of the trips.

City officials place some of the blame on the Transportation Authority and the auditor, saying there were never any objections to monthly reports on the spending they to the agency.

“During this filing process no communication was received by the city from [the Transportation Authority] that the expenditures in question are unallowable as described in the agreed upon scope of work,” a Jan. 20 response letter from the city states.

City officials also pointed out that the auditor reviewed spending under program in 2012 and didn’t object to the spending back then.

According to city Parks and Recreation Director Gerardo Mouet, the auditor this time around decided to interpret the funding agreement between the Transportation Authority and the city in a more restrictive way, disallowing any costs that aren’t solely transportation to and from the senior centers.

Mouet also emphasized that 85 percent of the program’s expenses were for senior center related trips. He said another 7 percent was for trips to and from the grocery store, and only 8 percent were for “excursions,” which in addition to local trips to the museum and the beach also on occasion took seniors to places outside of Orange County, such as the casinos, wineries and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

“Some people may want to dramatize the excursions outside of Orange County. But you have to look at the facts,” Mouet said.

Mouet said the city is working with the Transportation Authority on an amendment to the funding contract that would still allow trips to and from the grocery store. In the meantime, Mouet said City Manager David Cavazos has authorized the use of city vans to continue those trips so seniors will still have access to that part of the program.

The Transportation Authority’s Finance and Administration Committee of the board of directors is scheduled to consider the auditors’ findings today at its regular meeting.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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