NASHVILLE, TN - According to travel reimbursement forms from a recent National Association of Counties conference in Nashville, TN, some local counties have made significant changes to save taxpayers money on county commissioner travel. This comes after a series of WECT reports in 2014 and 2015, documenting what commissioners spent on your dime when traveling to conferences across the country.
New Hanover County Commissioners limit meal spending
Those stories uncovered New Hanover County Commissioners dropping hundreds of dollars at some of the priciest restaurants in New Orleans and Washington, DC during National Association of Counties conferences. At that time, commissioners spared no expense, purchasing $50 entrees, appetizers, salads, and desserts, far exceeding the per diem meal allowances for regular county employees. WECT was told the county manager and commissioners were not bound by the same price limits as other employees.
That didn't go over very well with the public who was footing the bill. After two years, and extensive debate, New Hanover County Commissioners voted in 2017 to cap commissioner travel spending at $4,000 per commissioner, per year. This not only addressed the amount being spent but who was spending it. Previously, some commissioners had been far outspending others on travel and meals.
New Hanover County Commissioners also passed a resolution recommending that commissioners follow per diem guidelines for meals, but the resolution allows for exceptions if commissioners are attending "various functions that benefit the county."
At the conference last month in Nashville, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield spent $2,499, including $520 on airfare, $1,127 on his hotel room, $50 on taxi fare, and $490 for the conference registration. Rather than turning in itemized receipts for his meals like he had done in years past, Barfield received a cash advance for his meals on the trip at the per diem rate, totaling $312 over the course of 6 days.
Commissioner Rob Zapple also went to Nashville on behalf of New Hanover County. He spent $1,872 during his 4-day stay and asked to be reimbursed the $14 per diem rate for breakfast on 2 days, and the $28 per diem rate for dinner on 2 nights. He appears to have paid for the rest of his meals out of his own pocket, or eaten food provided by the conference. Zapple's other expenses were similar to Barfield's with the exception of his hotel bill, which was less because he stayed fewer nights.
Pender County requiring itemized receipts
In Pender County, things are also being done differently now than they were in years past. During the 2015 National Association of Counties conference in Charlotte, newly appointed County Commissioner Demetrice Keith raised eyebrows for racking up $134 in room service charges, $74 of that in a single day.
Keith did not provide the county with receipts for her purchases, but at WECT's request, the county got duplicate receipts from the hotel. They revealed a $44 room service charge for Keith's breakfast one day, and $40 more that night for chicken fingers and red velvet cake to be delivered to her room. She spent another $31 for room service on breakfast the following morning, the same day breakfast was provided by the conference as part of Keith's $555 registration fee.
Keith was defeated when she ran to keep her seat the following year, losing to Republican challenger Jackie Newton. This year, Newton represented Pender County Commissioners at the NACO conference in Nashville.
Newton spent $1,548 over 3 days at the conference, mostly on airfare, the hotel, and conference registration fees. She paid for her meals out of her own pocket.
Pender County also spent $1,730 to send Tammy Proctor, the county's director of tourism, to the conference for 5 nights. Assistant County Manager Chad McEwen attended the conference too, racking up $2,350 in charges over 4 nights. His expenses were similar to other local conference attendees, with the exception of $248 in charges for Uber rides.
One noteworthy change we saw on Pender County's Travel Reimbursement Request form was a line at the top that says, "To be reimbursed for meals, you must attach an ITEMIZED receipt – credit card receipts with no detail are not acceptable and will not be reimbursed." Pender County says this has always been their policy, but they recently added the language to the reimbursement form for clarity.
In years past, public officials across our viewing area have spent public money on meals, but sometimes only turned in credit card charge receipts with a grand total that gave no detail on what was purchased. That made it difficult to determine if officials were following county guidelines, including whether they were purchasing alcohol with county funds. That is expressly prohibited by many local governments.
Bladen County spent $7,481 sending three commissioners to the Nashville conference. Ophelia Munn-Goins spent $1,699 over the course of a 4-night stay, Michael Cogdell spent $2,133 over 6 nights, and Arthur Bullock spent $2,179 over 5 nights.
All three commissioners received per diem reimbursement for their meals, at a lower rate than allowed by New Hanover County. Bladen County allows $8 for breakfast, $11 for lunch, and $21 for dinner. Bullock's expenses were higher than the others because he drove to Nashville. The 1,200-mile round trip cost the county $647 in mileage reimbursement, almost twice what it would have cost to fly.
Frank Williams was the only commissioner from Brunswick County to attend the July NACO conference. He spent $1,775 during his 3-night trip. His expenses were unremarkable, other than the fact that he appears to have paid for several of his meals in Nashville out of his own pocket.
Columbus County sent 2 delegates to the conference, Edwin Russ and Charles McDowell. They kept expenses to $3,200 by sharing a hotel room, paying their own airfare, and frugal spending on meals, well below the per diem rate for the time they spent in Nashville.