E-470 Executive Director John McCuskey defended the spending as necessary.
"We are an enterprise. We have to operate like a business. We don't have any recourse to our member jurisdictions," McCuskey said.
9Wants to Know was able to view financial records of the E-470 Public Highway Authority because the agency is a political subdivision of the State of Colorado and is subject to open records laws.
E-470 is expected to collect $103 million this year in tolls.
Rate hikes on tolls are based on the agency's 16-year-old financial plan to pay off its $1 billion debt.
"We have to maintain certain margins according to our debt, and we operate just like many businesses do," McCuskey said.
According to travel expenses, credit card records and other documents, some E-470 employees and board members received perks not typically found in most state agencies.
Records indicate the E-470 Public Highway Authority spent $13,000 on a licensed massage therapist who visited E-470 offices over a three year period.
When asked about the necessity of such a government expense, McCuskey told 9Wants to Know he made the decision to phase out the massage program earlier this year for a more "encompassing" wellness program for employees.
"What's important is that we take stewardship and responsibility very seriously," McCuskey said when asked if he cut the massages based on cost.
A review of bonuses show nearly 50 E-470 employees received extra pay.
The Director of Operations and the Director of Finance received the highest bonuses of $2,806 and $2,421, respectively.
McCuskey, who makes $180,000, said he didn't receive a bonus.
McCuskey said the board approved a bonus pool of $71,000 dollars.
The total amount of bonuses paid out to employees is $59,370.00, according to a list provided by an E-470 spokesperson.
Documents indicate several E470 employees and some board members traveled to numerous cities across the country and Europe for conferences held by the International Tunnel and Turnpike Association since 2010.
Some of the cities include San Diego, Boston, Miami, Tampa and Berlin.
In Tampa, credit card records show E-470 covered accommodations at the Ritz Carlton for a past executive director in 2010.
In Boston, credit card records show E-470 employees also enjoyed dining at a high end steakhouse, with the bill totaling nearly $500.
During one trip to San Diego, reimbursement records show board member Jim Benson charged E-470 a $100 baggage fee so he could take his golf clubs along on the trip.
"That's not a good use of public resources," said Elena Nunez of Common Cause Colorado, a government watchdog group. "To have that agency pay for them to take their golf clubs along, I question whether or not that's a good use of the public's resources."
Records show more than $25,000 was spent on credit cards for travel expenses over the last two years, mostly by two different executive directors.
Questioning the Board
On November 10th, E-470 voted to raise tolls on drivers as part of a scheduled hike.
9Wants to Know showed up to the meeting to ask them about travel expenses during public comment.
"I can say certainly that educating the board is one of our jobs here," Board Chairman Frank Weddig responded.
A review of IBTTA's website shows it has archived dozens of pages of notes and presentation slides online.
When 9Wants to Know asked the board why they couldn't just educate themselves by visiting the website instead of spending money on travel, the board didn't respond to any more questions.
After the meeting, E-470 spokesperson Jo Snell also sent
9Wants to Know an email saying the agency "is viewed Internationally as a leader in the tolling industry."
During a sit-down interview with 9Wants to Know, McCuskey defended the expenses, saying travel to conferences is necessary to network with others in the tolling industry.
"There's nothing like the face-to-face exchange of information. The exchange of data, the opportunity to talk, to build networks, to meet new colleagues. It's second to none in terms of benefit to the authority," McCuskey said.
McCuskey cited the new sticker tags for E-470 as one example of technology that came out of the meeting. McCuskey said the sticker tags will save the agency money in the long-run.
Vote against a Possible Audit
A review of board minutes shows the E-470 board unanimously voted earlier this year to object to a proposed audit by the State Auditor.
According to the minutes, board members objected to the audit because they felt there was already enough oversight of E-470 operations and that the cost of the audit would have been an "unfunded mandate."
In those notes, one board member remarked that the cost of such an audit "would be unwarranted especially in the present economic times."
Driver Complaints & Toll Hikes
The expenses may not sit well with drivers like Jerry Keel who feel they've been unfairly billed by E-470.
Keel said he won't use the highway again after getting hit with a $4,000 collection notice.
"I'm in the wrong job. I want that job," Keel said when told about E470's expenses.
When asked if the toll hikes are justified, McCuskey said the bulk of the agency's expenditures goes to paying its debt and that its operating budget is composed of things that many businesses have."
"If someone gets a bill for that much, I want to thank them because they're using the road an awful lot or they didn't pay the bill or they had a violation, although that whole process had a change," McCuskey said.
On the same day E-470 voted to raise tolls, it also voted to drastically cut penalties on delinquent accounts.