Some NHC commissioners charging to attend local events again

Some NHC commissioners charging to attend local events again
Commission Chair says back to back conferences contributed to higher expenses in single quarter. (Source: WECT)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - WECT has just obtained the New Hanover County commissioners travel expenses for the first quarter of this fiscal year.

Commissioners Beth Dawson and Rob Zapple each spent over $3,400 on travel each during that time frame.

Commissioners Woody White and Skip Watkins, who have both pushed unsuccessfully for individual spending limits for commissioners, did not incur any travel expenses during the first quarter according to expense reports provided by the county.

Beth Dawson spending

Commission Chair Beth Dawson, who is serving her final months as a county commissioner after losing her bid for re-election in the primary, spent $3,490 on travel in July and August alone. That included a $2,539 trip to California for the National Association of Counties Annual Conference we previously reported and $926 for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners conference in August.

When White previously requested spending caps for each commissioner, expressing concern that some were spending a disproportionate amount of the $21,566 total travel budget, Dawson pushed back. She said it was unnecessary because they were doing a good job self-regulating the use of the travel budget shared between the five commissioners and their clerks.

"We have held the line on this line item budget for the last several years. And if you want to take that total and divide it by about eight of us including our clerks, it comes out to be about $2,500 a piece," Dawson said at the November County Commissioners meeting.

But Dawson said because some of the commissioners don't travel or utilize the available budget, others essentially have to pick up the slack.

"That's why we should not put individual caps because some commissioners are not going to go. Some of us are performing double duty," Dawson said Wednesday. "Some of us have schedules that allow us the flexibility to attend…. We use common sense in performing our duties to represent the citizens."

Dawson noted the first quarter was particularly expensive because two of the major annual conferences for county commissioners were back to back on the calendar. "Everyone is eligible to attend these things. My fellow commissioners elected me to be the voting delegate at these conferences," Dawson said, noting she did not plan on attending any more conferences between now and the end of her term in December.

"I did not go to Richmond this year, I did not go to Washington, because we had plenty of representation and I had other commitments I had to attend to," she said.

Dawson also had a $25 charge on her expense report for a Chamber Women's Luncheon. She said she was representing the county in an official capacity at that luncheon and it was appropriate to pass that cost along to the county.

Rob Zapple spending

Commissioner Rob Zapple incurred $3,489 in travel expenses over the last quarter. He spent $2,539 during the NACO trip to California, and $950 on a trip to Richmond, VA, in September. The Richmond trip was an Intercity Leadership Conference done through the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

According to a press release from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, they organized the trip "to introduce the local delegation to innovative ideas, programs and initiatives which may be adapted and implemented in our community, as well as build relationships among our delegation attendees, resulting in a more cohesive team working on behalf of our community."

The Chamber chose Richmond as a destination because of the city's success reinventing itself from a "traditional, historic community into a thriving center for innovation and the arts," said Chamber Chairman Mitch Lamm.

New Hanover Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was among the 28 Wilmington delegates on the trip.

"We have a lot of work to do here. They are very inclusive of all demographics there," Barfield said of his takeaways from the trip to Richmond. He said city leaders there are doing a good job addressing poverty and bringing new jobs to the area. He was especially impressed with the efficiency of their bus system, providing a more user-friendly experience for riders.

"It's kind of neat when you go to other communities like we did to Charleston last year, to see what kind of things they are doing" Barfield added, saying it is good for benchmarking Wilmington's performance compared to other cities. Barfield says he and his fellow delegates are planning a debrief meeting to determine how to best implement Richmond's best practices here.

Jonathan Barfield spending

Barfield's first quarter travel expenses were much lower than Dawson's and Zapple's, totaling $1,062. Most of that was spent in Richmond, but taxpayers did spend $25 for Barfield to attend a City African American Awards Banquet and $35 for him to attend Coastal Horizons 46th meeting.

Barfield says at both of those events, he was serving as an official representative of the county, so it was appropriate for him to expense his attendance.

Notably, Barfield is personally covering the cost to attend some other upcoming events similar to ones he charged to the county in years past. He is paying $125 to attend Pink Ribbon Luncheon Oct. 6th and $85 to attend a Cocktail Party and Celebration put on by the New Hanover Regional Medical Center Foundation October 7.

The only other charge on Barfield's travel report was a $52 meal he expensed when he took the County Department of Social Services Director out to lunch in August. Barfield is the county's representative on the DSS Board, and says he took the director out to eat after her annual review. That total covered both of their meals.

While the amount for both lunches is insignificant compared to the total county budget, it is much higher than the federal per diem limit of $15 per lunch allowed in the Wilmington area. That's noteworthy because Commissioners Barfield, Dawson and Zapple have voted against binding themselves to the county travel policy governing county employees, but said they would voluntarily follow those guidelines.

The travel policy requires employees to follow federal per diem limits for meals when dining with county money.

"I don't know what per diem is for lunch," Barfield told us when we asked him about the charge.

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