NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - New Hanover Commissioner Rob Zapple, the only commissioner to publicly speak out about a new travel policy for county commissioners, says new per-commissioner spending limits are onerous to the point they are preventing the county from participating in important business.
Zapple and County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield canceled plans to attend the National Association of Counties Annual Conference in Las Vegas over the weekend, perhaps because it was unaffordable under the new guidelines. The registration fees, flight, hotel and meal expenses could have easily exhausted the commissioners’ entire travel budget for the year on that single trip.
When commissioners voted on the new county budget in June, they made a couple of tweaks before making it official. The tweaks eliminated a proposed raise for county commissioners, and reduced the county commissioners travel budget. Their travel budget last year was $20,000, with $4,000 set aside for each commissioner to use on county business. If commissioners opted not to use their allotment, it went back to the county’s general fund.
Language in the budget for the new fiscal year would have allowed commissioners to dip into unused travel funds of fellow commissioners. Instead, Commissioner Woody White proposed slashing the per-person allotment in half, and keeping individual spending caps in place on each commissioner. White’s proposal was approved by the majority of the commissioners, with Rob Zapple dissenting.
“I believe that a limited amount of commissioner and staff travel provides real, tangible benefits to county government and county residents,” Zapple explained in a letter to WECT about travel spending. “The new limits—$2000 per person, with no sharing of resources—make that virtually impossible. Registration costs alone for last year's state and national conferences of county commissioners totaled over $1400 per person. That does not leave enough to cover travel expenses.”
Zapple noted that travel to national conferences allows them to meet face to face with high level federal employees, including FEMA, EPA, and HUD, and discuss topics of local relevance ranging from toxic chemicals in the drinking water supply to hurricane recovery.
He also noted that the $2,000 cap per commissioner is much less than many other large counties in North Carolina provide. He shared figures that show Buncombe, Guilford, and Orange County Commissioners each have over $3,300 to spend each year on travel, and also have the option to share unused travel funds of fellow commissioners. He said Wake County Commissioners get $4,500 each, Durham County Commissioners get $5,000 each, and Mecklenburg County Commissioners are given $9,233 per commissioner, per year.
“Continuing education and an awareness of how other counties handle the same challenges we face is not only part of a Commissioner’s job, it makes us better at our jobs. I think it's arrogant to assume we have all the answers, or that a few minutes online or on the phone provides all the information we need,” Zapple added.
Commissioner Pat Kusek seconded Commissioner Woody White’s proposal to cut travel spending to $2,000 per commissioner. Commissioner Julia Boseman voted with them, telling WECT there was a need to limit travel spending.
“I don’t see the benefit in a lot of these trips. I’m not saying the other commissioners don’t benefit but I think that spending in excess of $4000 [is unnecessary]. Really, three of us don’t travel, are not going to go on the travel policy so for all of that money to go to two commissioners, it just seems excessive and unnecessary,” Boseman said of the reason for her vote.
Chairman Barfield did not speak for or against the travel policy during the budget vote, and is officially recorded as voting in favor of the budget, including Commissioner White’s amendment cutting the travel budget.
Zapple said questioning commissioners travel expenses made for good political theater about wasteful government spending, but he felt it was more honest to note that the commissioners entire travel budget at the $20,000 level amounted to .00005% of the county’s overall budget, and he felt it was a “modest amount to pay for good governance.”
New Hanover County’s Deputy County Manager, Tim Burgess, did attend the National Association of County’s Conference in Las Vegas, speaking at a symposium about the county’s response to Hurricane Florence. Burgess also attended an awards luncheon where the county was recognized for earning seven awards over the last year.