WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Travel spending has been a subject of controversy among New Hanover County commissioners for years, and they recently voted to further rein it in. Instead of approving a proposal that would have allowed some commissioners to exceed their current $4,000 annual travel budget, commissioners decided in a 4-1 vote to cut the current travel budget in half.
A series of WECT reports in 2014 and 2015 uncovered New Hanover County commissioners dropping hundreds of dollars at some of the priciest restaurants in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. 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 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.
Under the 2017 policy, any unused money at the end of the budget year would go back into the county’s general fund.
While some commissioners use most of their travel budget each year, others do not. The recent proposal to update the 2017 policy would have allowed the commissioners who do travel to dip into the unused travel funds of their fellow commissioners.
“Really, three of us don’t travel,” Commissioner Julia Boseman explained. “I think two commissioners having $20,000 to spend on travel is excessive.”
Boseman, a Democrat, sided with Republican commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White to keep the per person limits in effect, and reduce the allowed travel spending for each commissioner from $4,000 to $2,000.
“$2,000 is plenty if you need to travel,” Boseman added. “When I was a new commissioner a long, long, long time ago I believe I went to one or two county things, and I think for some commissioners it is a benefit. At this point in my career, I don’t find any benefit in going to these conventions. Most of this information I can get online.”
Commissioner Woody White noted that average property taxes for a New Hanover County household is about $1,500, so from that vantage point, $2,000 per commissioner for spending is ample. He has been a staunch advocate for travel spending limits, and elected to pay his own way when he traveled to Hawaii recently to represent the county commission at a ceremony at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS North Carolina submarine.
Commissioner Rob Zapple supported the failed proposal to allow access to unused travel funds of other commissioners. Chairman Jonathan Barfield did not speak for or against the travel proposal during the hearing on the budget, and others in the room thought he supported it. He also cannot be heard voting aye or nay when the issue came to a vote. However, the official minutes record him as voting in favor of the budget, including the amendment from White capping travel spending for commissioners at $2,000.
The commissioners also voted down a proposed salary increase for themselves.
“There was a salary increase in the budget, too, that we also took out. It would have been another $1,000 for commissioners, and I think it’s unnecessary,” Boseman said. "We get paid to do this job, and I appreciate that, but it’s a privilege and an honor to get to do this job and I appreciate that. It’s certainly not about the money, not for me anyway.”
**Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the motion to cap travel spending at $2,000 passed in a 3-2 vote. Despite confusion because of the way the vote was held, the official minutes from the meeting reflect that that it passed 4-1. We regret the error.**