July 23, 1995 in Nation/World

As Budget Crisis Grows, Officials Go On A Junket Commissioners’ Trip Will Cost At Least $4,000 At A Time When The County Is Going Broke

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:travel

A day after announcing that Spokane County government is going broke, two county commissioners hopped a plane Wednesday to North Carolina at taxpayer expense.

Phil Harris and Steve Hasson left behind angry courthouse employees who question the timing and duration of the East Coast trip.

The commissioners, along with Sheriff John Goldman, attended a criminal justice conference Thursday and Friday in Raleigh-Durham.

It will cost taxpayers at least $4,000.

While Goldman was scheduled to return this weekend, the commissioners won’t come back until Monday after a weekend at the beach to visit Harris’ brother.

“It’s ridiculous,” said one county employee, reflecting the concerns of many workers who have made the trip a hot topic at the courthouse. No one wanted to be identified because of fears of being fired.

In recent weeks, Harris and Hasson have eliminated several midmanagement jobs and refused to fill several vacant low-level positions. The commissioners have said that to avoid a massive layoff of 100 or more employees in January, they must whack spending now.

During an interview Thursday from the Sheraton Imperial in Raleigh-Durham, Harris defended the business trip. “If the (county) employees don’t like it, that’s too bad,” he said.

The conference was called “Getting Tough on Crime: What Works in Corrections and at What Cost.” Organized by Governing Magazine, it was aimed at 120 politicians and law officers and featured speeches by North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt and the attorneys general of North Carolina and Colorado.

The sheriff’s going is one thing, several county workers said, but commissioners have no business there after what can best be described as a sorry state of the budget address Tuesday.

During a meeting with about 75 elected officials and department managers, Harris said: “In my opinion, this county is broke and it’s been broke for years.”

He noted that the county’s reserve fund, or rainy-day emergency account, has dropped to half a million dollars. If the trend continues, investment firms could yank the county’s coveted bond rating and force taxpayers to pay millions more in interest to finance construction projects.

Harris told the audience that commissioners often borrow money from the county treasurer with interest just to make payroll during months when cash flow is down to a trickle.

Then comes a five-day trip to North Carolina for a day-and-a-half conference on crime.

The trip will equal about 1 percent of the county’s total reserve fund.

“I wouldn’t take a trip like that on my budget,” said one elected official, who didn’t want to be named, fearing retribution from county commissioners who have final say over his budget.

“Was it necessary for all three of them to go?” asked another elected official.

From their Raleigh-Durham quarters, Harris and Hasson defended the trip as a means to educate themselves about a topic - law and order - that drains most of Spokane County’s budget.

As for visiting Harris’ brother on North Carolina’s popular Outer Banks, Harris said meals, the rental car and lodging would not be charged to taxpayers.

“There’s nothing shameful about that,” Harris said. “It’s not costing the county a dime.”

Hasson noted that 72 percent of the county’s $81 million annual general fund budget goes for law and justice.

First-hand information from nationally known sources is needed, Hasson said, so that he and other commissioners can make educated judgments about where to cut money and where to spend it.

“Every good businessman knows you need to spend a little money in order to make money,” Hasson said.

Harris estimated the total cost to taxpayers for both him and Hasson at $1,500.

Told the county already has spent more than $2,500 for just the commissioners’ air fare, motel and conference registration, Harris disputed the figure but said the knowledge learned would be well worth the money.

“Even if it’s $2,500 and we can come back with one new idea that stops one crime, then we’ve paid for the trip right now,” Harris said.

Goldman’s trip expenses were not available but will be at least $1,300 based on standard air fare, two nights’ lodging and the conference registration.

County records show that the total air fare for Harris and Hasson was $1,443, two nights in separate rooms at the Sheraton was $320 combined, and conference registration was $795. Receipts for meals and a rental car will be submitted after they return.

The airline tickets were expensive because of market conditions. It helped little that the tickets were bought last month and included a weekend stay, said Lynda Broberg, the county’s account manager at BTI America’s/USTravel in the Valley.

A check with another travel agent put the cost of a round trip to Raleigh-Durham at $722, including three weeks advance notice.

“In certain markets (including the South), the air fares are really high,” Broberg said.

The entire budget for commissioners’ travel this year is $5,083. Conference registration fees don’t come out of the fund, however.

Attending the conference had nothing to do with visiting his brother, Harris said, noting that people from all over the country were there.

“John Goldman is not related to my brother, and neither is Steve Hasson,” he said. “It’s imperative we come to this conference and find out what’s going in the new world.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TRAVEL POLICY After two years of review, Spokane County commissioners passed a travel policy last December. It says: Lodging must be reasonable, although employees don’t have to share rooms. Travel can include weekend stayovers, if air-fare savings exceed additional costs. Meals are reimbursed daily at $6 for breakfast, $8 for lunch and $12 for dinner, unless employees travel to high-cost areas such as Miami, Los Angeles, Denver or Seattle. Then the daily meal rate is $38. Business-related expenses are allowed, but receipts are required except for services under $25. All business telephone calls are reimbursed, and personal calls for up to five minutes a day. J. Todd Foster

2. IT’S NOT ALL GRAVY: TRIP’S ALSO GRITTY County Commissioner Phil Harris, a native Virginian, recently promised to introduce fellow Commissioner Steve Hasson to his beloved South and all the trimmings. “Wait till you get some red-eye gravy and grits,” Harris told Hasson, referring to their upcoming North Carolina trip. For non-Southerners, that’s gravy made from country ham drippings and coarsely ground porridge. Hasson, known for his sense of humor, already has developed a famous taste for cornbread. Last year, he testified on behalf of a crack house, saying the notorious Sam’s Pit was the only place in Spokane to get good cornbread after midnight. The best Southern-fried cooking in Raleigh-Durham is at Big Ed’s, confirms Debbie Moose, food editor at the Raleigh News & Observer. “I wouldn’t consider us the capital of the cornbread universe though,” Moose said. “I never thought of us as a junket destination either.” J. Todd Foster

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. TRAVEL POLICY After two years of review, Spokane County commissioners passed a travel policy last December. It says: Lodging must be reasonable, although employees don’t have to share rooms. Travel can include weekend stayovers, if air-fare savings exceed additional costs. Meals are reimbursed daily at $6 for breakfast, $8 for lunch and $12 for dinner, unless employees travel to high-cost areas such as Miami, Los Angeles, Denver or Seattle. Then the daily meal rate is $38. Business-related expenses are allowed, but receipts are required except for services under $25. All business telephone calls are reimbursed, and personal calls for up to five minutes a day. J. Todd Foster

2. IT’S NOT ALL GRAVY: TRIP’S ALSO GRITTY County Commissioner Phil Harris, a native Virginian, recently promised to introduce fellow Commissioner Steve Hasson to his beloved South and all the trimmings. “Wait till you get some red-eye gravy and grits,” Harris told Hasson, referring to their upcoming North Carolina trip. For non-Southerners, that’s gravy made from country ham drippings and coarsely ground porridge. Hasson, known for his sense of humor, already has developed a famous taste for cornbread. Last year, he testified on behalf of a crack house, saying the notorious Sam’s Pit was the only place in Spokane to get good cornbread after midnight. The best Southern-fried cooking in Raleigh-Durham is at Big Ed’s, confirms Debbie Moose, food editor at the Raleigh News & Observer. “I wouldn’t consider us the capital of the cornbread universe though,” Moose said. “I never thought of us as a junket destination either.” J. Todd Foster


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email