Com­mis­sion­ers OK boost in travel funds

Bud­get per board mem­ber goes from $12,300 to $50,000.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Arielle Kass [email protected]

Ful­ton County com­mis­sion­ers voted to more than triple the amount of money they can spend for travel and train­ing each year, an in­crease one dis­sent­ing board mem­ber de­scribed as “ridicu­lously ex­ces­sive.”

In ad­di­tion to boost­ing the funds from $86,100 to $350,000, or $50,000 for each com­mis­sioner, the board also de­cided last month that those who don’t spend all their money on travel and train­ing can use it as they deem fit, for any other job-re­lated expense other than salaries.

“That is just an as­tro­nom­i­cal in­crease,” said Wil­liam Perry, founder of Ge­or­gia Ethics Watch­dogs. “It sounds like tax­payer abuse to me, just based on the num­bers. I would like to see the jus­ti­fi­able need.”

Be­fore the mea­sure was ap­proved in a De­cem­ber meet­ing, Com­mis­sioner Natalie Hall said it had been 16 years since the com­mis­sion last raised the al­lot­ment. In that time, she said, travel and con­fer­ence costs have soared. Hall — who spent $12,273 of the avail­able $12,300 in 2018 — pro­posed up­ping the travel and train­ing funds to $39,000. But Com­mis­sioner Marvin Ar­ring­ton rec­om­mended $50,000 per board mem­ber in­stead.

“Not only do we need the train­ing, but our staff needs the train­ing as well,” Ar­ring­ton added.

Hall also said long­time com­mis­sion­ers, who might have less of a

need for pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment, should be able to use the ear­marked money on other ex­penses.

The Ful­ton travel and train­ing bud­get dwarfs those of some nearby county gov­ern­ments. In Clay­ton County, $67,000 was bud­geted in 2018. In Cobb County, $50,500 was al­lo­cated. Gwin­nett County bud­geted $41,985 for com­mis­sioner travel and train­ing in 2017, the last year fig­ures are avail­able. DeKalb County of­fi­cials said they wouldn’t be able to pro­vide travel expense fig­ures by press time.

Ful­ton com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved the in­crease in a 4-2 vote, af­ter less than 10 min­utes of dis­cus­sion. The mat­ter did not ap­pear on the agenda made avail­able to the pub­lic and was added af­ter the meet­ing started.

Hall and Ar­ring­ton did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

County Com­mis­sioner Liz Haus­mann said the expense of con­fer­ences like the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties and the As­so­ci­a­tion County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia can stretch their bud­gets. Com­mis­sion­ers also go on fact-find­ing trips, like the At­lanta Re­gional Com­mis­sion’s LINK trip, where lo­cal lead­ers visit other cities to see how those ju­ris­dic­tions solve prob­lems.

The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties has three con­fer­ences a year, and reg­is­tra­tion for the next con­fer­ence, in March, costs $515 for mem­bers. Ho­tel costs for the five days in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are around $250 a night. To go to the As­so­ci­a­tion County Com­mis­sion­ers of Ge­or­gia an­nual con­fer­ence last year and take two train­ing classes, com­mis­sion­ers would have paid $880, plus ho­tel costs. That or­ga­ni­za­tion has two or three con­fer­ences an­nu­ally, and of­fers classes through­out the year for $235 apiece, with some ex­cep­tions for longer or more in­volved classes, which are costlier.

Haus­mann, who spent $11,943 on travel and train­ing last year, said she has found a lot of value in the trips she’s taken but thought $50,000 was “def­i­nitely too much.” She voted against the mea­sure, say­ing she felt the in­crease “was ex­or­bi­tant.”

Com­mis­sioner Bob El­lis, who spent $1,534 on travel and train­ing in 2018, also voted against the in­crease. He called the boost “ridicu­lously ex­ces­sive.” He was also con­cerned res­i­dents hadn’t had an op­por­tu­nity to weigh in on the idea, since it was added to the agenda the same day it was ap­proved.

He said he op­posed giv­ing com­mis­sion­ers the abil­ity to re­al­lo­cate travel and train­ing money, say­ing it’s prob­lem­atic when there aren’t good con­trols on tax­payer dol­lars.

“It just cre­ates op­por­tu­ni­ties for abuse,” he said. “While it’s not com­pen­sa­tion, per se, peo­ple can view travel and con­ven­tions as ben­e­fits. Cer­tainly, if there’s some­thing on the floor in­creas­ing in­di­vid­ual com­pen­sa­tion, it should be aired out in a very pub­lic fash­ion.”

Ful­ton County Com­mis­sion Chair­man Robb Pitts spent $1,654 on travel last year, but said he sup­ported the mea­sure be­cause other com­mis­sion­ers, who travel more of­ten, told him they needed ad­di­tional funds.

But, he said, Hall and Ar­ring­ton “ought to be pre­pared to ex­plain it.”

“This is go­ing to be an is­sue the pub­lic has some in­ter­est in,” he said. “That’s quite a jump.”

Perry, with Ge­or­gia Ethics Watch­dogs, said he was con­cerned there ap­peared to be no study that sup­ported the in­crease. He said mak­ing such a de­ci­sion on the fly was ir­re­spon­si­ble.

“How flip­pant are they be­ing, throw­ing around $300,000?” he asked. “It flies in the face of open, re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment. That re­ally makes me an­gry. It’s one of the most ir­re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sions I’ve heard about in a long time.”

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