WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Last month, tax dollars paid for nine city officials, including spouses and companions, to go to Washington DC for a national conference.
Expense reports show the trip cost more than $19,000. Some dinner bills totaled more than $400. Tax payers not only paid for steak and lobster, but they also paid for appetizers, desserts, and even spouses.
"If a spouse wants to come along as they have in the past, that should be okay," said Saffo.
Council person Kristi Tomey said she traveled to Washington for the conference with a long time boyfriend, but his meals were not paid for by taxpayers.
"I made sure, doubly sure, that my guest was paid for," said Tomey. "His name is Chris. He didn't come up for the whole trip. He rode in his own car."
Tomey's companion ate two meals with the group. In one of those meals the restaurant refused to separate the check, so Tomey later reimbursed the city for his portion of the meal.
The biggest spenders were council member Ronald Sparks ($2,508) and city manager Sterling Cheatham ($2038.87).
WECT asked Mayor Saffo if he considered the spending questionable in these tight budget times.
"If we get anymore than $19,000 we had a successful trip, but if we don't - shame on us," said Saffo.
There may be more attention to the trip now, because council is talking about possible cuts in fire and police services to balance next year's budget.
The mayor said the trip was necessary, because Wilmington worked to secure federal stimulus money, and learned from leaders in other municipalities.
City leaders also met with congressional and administration officials to discuss issues face-to-face, in addition to gaining ideas from other cities about how to deal with pressing issues.
"We needed to demonstrate a unified front as other city communities were fighting for money," said Saffo. "We need to show we needed that money to come back to Wilmington."
Some taxpayers agree with Saffo.
"I think it was for learning," said a taxpayer who didn't want to be identified. "It was worth it. It was sort of expensive, but if we get something out of it."
Saffo said the true worth of the trip won't be known until Wilmington receives it's share of the federal stimulus cash.
Many Wilmington residents expressed their opinions about the council's spending on the radio Tuesday morning.
The controversy was the big topic on the Morning Drive Time. Caller after caller shared their thoughts with Rhonda Bellamy on 980, the Wave.
Bellamy said the listeners were split down the middle - some outraged by the spending, some supportive of it.
Stay with WECT and wect.com for further updates on this issue.