WECT Investigates: County Commissioner spending on trip to Pinehurst

WECT Investigates: County Commissioner spending on trip to Pinehurst
Columbus County’s sheriff says seniors have gotten phone calls saying they won millions of dollars and a car. (Source: WECT)
Columbus County Commissioners used a roll-away cot to save taxpayer money at Pinehurst. (Source: Edwin Russ)
Columbus County Commissioners used a roll-away cot to save taxpayer money at Pinehurst. (Source: Edwin Russ)
Columbus County Commissioners shared a room at Pinehurst to save taxpayer money. (Source: Edwin Russ)
Columbus County Commissioners shared a room at Pinehurst to save taxpayer money. (Source: Edwin Russ)

Earlier this month, New Hanover County Commissioners voted down a proposal to include themselves in the county's new travel policy. The policy sets limits on what ordinary county employees can spend while traveling and dining at taxpayer expense.

Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield reasoned that when they go to places like Pinehurst, it simply isn't feasible to find restaurants that allow them to dine on a budget.

"The breakfast at that place was $30," Barfield told us about Pinehurst Resort. "There's no way that you can get into your car and drive somewhere to find breakfast, and get back to your conference and make things work."

At least four of the counties in our region sent delegates to Pinehurst for a North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Legislative Goals Conference in January. WECT requested expense reports from all of those counties to see what all commissioners spent.

While New Hanover County leaders still spent the most of any of our local delegations, it appears that overall, they are doing a better job of sticking to a budget in the wake of a WECT investigative series that put a spotlight on commissioner spending.

While staying at Pinehurst Resort, where the conference was held, Commissioners Jonathan Barfield, Rob Zapple and Skip Watkins joined County Manager Chris Coudriet for breakfast at the resort's Carolina Dining Room. The meal cost them $36 a piece after tax and tip, which is five times more than the allowable rate for breakfast set by the federal government. Zapple has indicated he will reimburse the county for any money spent over the suggested per diem.

But most of their meals were more reasonable.

Barfield and Zapple ate one dinner at Ruby Tuesday. Neither of them spent over $20. That's a big shift from dinners at some conferences last year when commissioners dined at pricey restaurants like Commanders Palace in New Orleans - and dinner cost them about $75 each.

Another notable change is what our county delegates chose to order when out to eat. While steak dinners have been a favorite for commissioners on previous trips, and a $33 steak was an option on the menu at Pinehurst's Ryder Cup Lounge in Pinehurst, Watkins and Coudriet picked the $14 burger on the second night of the conference.

On their final day, Coudriet and Watkins picked Taco Bell for lunch, and they were both able to eat for less than $10 total.

Unfortunately, Coudriet was unaware that gratuity was automatically included while dining at the resort. So on three separate occasions, when an 18 percent gratuity had already been added to the bill, he added an extra gratuity, giving the wait staff a total tip of close to 40 percent. The county has since realized the mistake, and has requested a refund, but it's not yet clear if one will be issued.

Coudriet says it was an honest mistake. Overall, county delegates seem to be well aware that the public is keeping close tabs on what they're eating while traveling on your tax dollars.

"When we do travel, we're always very frugal, and a soup and a sandwich is just fine with me. I don't vary much from what I would normally do at home," explained New Hanover County Commissioner Beth Dawson.

Our analysis of receipts uncovered that while Dawson was conservative with her meal choices, her total travel expenses were higher than any other commissioner in our four county delegation attending the Pinehurst conference.

We totaled the New Hanover County delegates' receipts, and found Zapple spent the least - $340 during the trip to Pinehurst, followed by Barfield at $348, and Watkins at $374. Coudriet's expenses were $436, driven higher because he was required to pay a $99 registration fee the county tells us commissioners were eligible to have waived. Dawson's expenses were the highest - totaling $700 after meals, three nights at the hotel, an extra training course on leadership, and her mileage reimbursement for the trip.

With a grand total of about $2,200, the cost for the Pinehurst trip is still just a fraction of what commissioners spent at other recent conferences.

Columbus County commissioners also made the trip to Pinehurst, and were able to keep their expenses considerably lower. Commissioners Trent Burroughs, Edwin Russ and Charles McDowell went above and beyond to save money for their taxpayers, getting a roll-away cot and sharing a hotel room on the trip to Pinehurst.

"We've got a very conservative policy," Trent Burroughs explained. "I think our budget is probably less than a lot of other counties around. We try to pool and take a county vehicle to events or meetings, and we generally try to pile up in one hotel room to be very frugal."

While few people would expect them to share a room, taxpayers may appreciate the savings these commissioners achieved as a result.

During the entire three day conference, Burroughs, Russ and McDowell spent just $167 a piece, choosing restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill which kept their meals within the federal per diem.

Commissioner James Prevatte joined them for the final day of the conference, and spent $183 on the trip, mostly on the cost of an additional hotel room.

Ironically, Amon McKenzie was the commissioner that cost the county the most, and he didn't even go. McKenzie had to cancel his trip at the last minute, so the county got charged for a $239 hotel room that didn't get used.

The grand total for Columbus County Commissioners to attend the conference came in at $827.

The four Brunswick County Commissioners who attended the conference each drove separately, which drove up the cost of their trip. Over the course of the 3 day trip, Marty Cooke spent $486. Randy Thompson and Frank Williams each spent $469, while Pat Sykes' expenses totaled $451. The county's total expense for their travel was $1875.

Pender County spent the least, with only Commissioner George Brown attending. He paid for his own meals and transportation, so the only cost to the county was $246 for two nights at the hotel.

Bladen County did not respond to our request for travel expenses.

The federal government per diem allows $46 a day for meals and incidental expenses in Pinehurst. Despite Barfield's explanation that it's an expensive place to visit, federal rankings list the Pinehurst area as a relatively affordable place to eat.

New Hanover County Commissioners leave Friday for a conference in Washington, DC. Barfield says it's just not feasible to stick to government per diems in places like that. "The [Washington] Hilton that we are staying in, there are no restaurants anywhere near around that particular hotel that you can even walk to, other than a Ruth's Chris that we're not going to go to, and that's just how it is in those places," he said.

But we found federal per diems vary depending on destination to accommodate for travel destinations with a higher cost of living.

According to the county, commissioners will actually be staying at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.  We called that hotel, where a worker told us there are several budget friendly options within walking distance, including Chipotle, McDonald's and several Asian restaurants.

According to Yelp, there are 49 single dollar rated places to eat near the hotel, which is the most affordable option on that restaurant location app. We'll keep an eye on the commissioners' spending and let you know how much that trip costs you after they get back.

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