December 15, 2018 10:01:44 PM
The city of Columbus spent almost $158,000 on travel in Fiscal Year 2018.
Of that total, nearly 30 percent -- $45,323.28 -- was the combined tab for the mayor and city council, according to information the city provided The Dispatch in response to a Mississippi Public Records Act request. That includes such expenses as lodging, food and event registration fees.
For comparison, Starkville's mayor and board of aldermen spent a combined $12,134.17 on travel during the same time period.
Columbus taxpayers funded several in-state trips, as well as events that multiple city officials attended as far away as Dallas, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and Orlando, Florida during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 -- a fiscal year in which the city swallowed an $881,000 overall budget deficit.
Councilmen are now targeting travel as one of a few key areas for cuts this fiscal year, at least to show the public a "good-faith effort" toward fiduciary responsibility and stemming deficit spending, several indicated.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said he has submitted a written proposal for council consideration to freeze for six months all city travel not directly related to necessary certifications. Further, the city has canceled plans to attend the annual Mississippi Municipal League Mid-Winter Conference in Jackson in January -- an event for which it spent roughly $5,900 to send 11 representatives in 2018.
"We have to get a handle on travel," Box told The Dispatch on Friday. "As far as administration, we have no business traveling that much. ... Honestly, this budget issue is the hardest thing I've been through in my (nine years) on the council. I think everybody is committing to solving it, so I really think the problem with travel will solve itself as a result."
Mayor Robert Smith spent the most tax dollars individually on travel in FY 2018 at $16,393.28 -- more than 10 times the amount Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill spent the same fiscal year.
Smith took 13 trips during the fiscal year, the most expensive being a $4,295.67 jaunt to a legislative conference in Washington, D.C. He twice accompanied senior fire department officials out-of-state -- once to Orlando, Florida and again to Dallas, Texas -- for events meant to help Columbus Fire and Rescue maintain its national accreditation, which is due for renewal in August.
Currently, CFR is the only nationally accredited municipal fire department in the state.
"For the trips related to fire department accreditation, they ask the mayors to attend," Smith said. "The reason is I have to sit before the (accreditation) board and answer questions related to what CFR has done to earn reaccreditation. I'm not going to walk into that room not knowing what I'm talking about."
Ward 2's Joseph Mickens logged a $7,192.94 travel tab, the highest among councilmen. Stephen Jones, who represents Ward 5, was a close second at $6,927.16.
Both councilmen attended MML's annual summer conference in Biloxi, the Mid-Winter Conference in Jackson and the Mississippi Policy Conference in Tunica. They also accompanied the mayor to the National League of Cities Conference in Charlotte and were among five city officials -- including the mayor, Ward 4 Councilman Fred Jackson and Interim City Planner George Irby -- to travel to Washington, D.C.
Jones, while noting he learned things at each conference he attended that made him a better councilman, admitted it was time for him to "lead by example," as he pledged to curtail his travel this year.
Likewise, Mickens said he is committed to travel cuts.
"To be truthful, I cut back last year," Mickens said. "... If we had known then what we know now about the budget deficit, I wouldn't have gone to D.C. or Charlotte. I don't think any of us would have."
Irby, who took nine tax-funded trips in the fiscal year at a total cost of $6,493.36, accounted for the most spending among department heads.
The police and fire departments accounted for a combined $90,000 in travel expenses. The majority of that involved academy training for new hires -- which can exceed $3,000 per person -- or mandatory specialized training for other personnel.
Sending fewer people
Most councilmen agree the city renders value from all of its travel and none of the four The Dispatch spoke with for this article expressed concern for the mayor's travel spending.
"I think the mayor needs to go and represent us at these places," Mickens said. "We don't need to tie his hands."
However, they all suggested the city could simply send fewer people to conferences, workshops and training when possible.
For example, 11 city officials attended both MML conferences in 2018 at a combined cost of nearly $19,000.
Those conferences offer workshops for city officials to earn certain leadership certifications. But some councilmen, like Box and Ward 6's Bill Gavin, have completed those certifications and said they don't intend to return to MML events, at least until the city's budget is stabilized.
"I think I'm probably through going," Gavin said. "It's much more valuable for the mayor to go. He is the face of the city, and he can come back and share what he learns with the rest of us."
Also notable, seven city representatives attended both the Mississippi Policy Conference in Tunica and a Tenn-Tom Waterway annual event in Point Clear, Alabama -- racking up a combined cost of $15,273.08.
Smith, for his part, touted the networking and lobbying opportunities his travel provides. When networking with leaders from other cities, he said, it has helped him learn how they deal with issues like crime prevention and neighborhood revitalization.
Lobbying legislators in Jackson and Washington, D.C., Smith said, helps generate additional money for local projects. This year, he plans to meet with lawmakers to pursue funding to finish the Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island and upgrade the sports fields at Propst Park.
"If you don't go and talk to these lawmakers, you're not going to get anything," Smith said. "You can't just sit behind your desk and network. ... So, if I have to pay out of my own pocket, there are some places I'll go regardless.
"As far as the council, they probably don't need to go all the time," he added. "But it's not my place to say they can't go because they are elected just like me."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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