Commissioners jet to Hawaii for county conference

There’s something about the world "Honolulu" that seems to get people going.

Whether they have or haven’t been there, they’re interested when they hear someone’s making the long flight to the 50th state. Especially when the travelers are their county commissioners and staffers, traveling on taxpayer money.

After finding out their commissioners are traveling to Hawaii in July to attend the annual National Association of Counties conference and exposition, some Minnesota residents have cried foul and counties have either canceled trips or had commissioners pay part of the expense.

In Washington and Ramsey County, however, commissioners aren’t canceling their flights. It’s a work expense like travel to any other professional organization’s conference, they say.

"We go to this every year," Washington County Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek says. "We don’t pick the location; the national association picks it. I know the media wants to make a big deal about this because it’s in Hawaii — they didn’t say a thing when it was in St. Louis."

Pulkrabek and two other commissioners, Dennis Hegberg and Gary Kriesel, will be traveling to the conference.

Asked what he and the other commissioners expect to bring back that might benefit Washington County, Pulkrabek says, "I haven’t looked at the full agenda yet. It’s the standard stuff: cooperation with other counties, housing, social problems, courts. They hit the whole gamut and you get to pick and choose what you want to attend."

Pulkrabek, who has carved out a reputation for himself as a fiscal conservative who never met a tax hike he liked, says the county’s record speaks for itself. "When you have 87 counties in Minnesota and we have the lowest tax rate of all 87, I don’t think anybody can accuse us of being fiscally irresponsible."

In Ramsey County, commissioners Rafael Ortega, Victoria Reinhardt, Toni Carter, Tony Bennett and Jim McDonough will attend the July 15-19 convention, accompanied by County Manager Dave Twa and Terry Speiker, director of intergovernmental relations and special projects.

According to Connie Catlin, director of the county’s policy division, the Association of Metropolitan Counties is paying for one commissioner’s trip; Bennett will be traveling on that stipend. The cost for Ramsey County’s other four commissioners will be $9,788. "That’s an estimate," she clarified. "We won’t know exactly the cost until they come back."

Catlin said she did not have calculations for the staff members’ trip costs because no one else had asked for them.

Catlin added that Ramsey County has sent commissioners to other NACO annual conferences, including:

o 2004, in Phoenix for a cost of $ 1,615 for one commissioner

o 2003, in Milwaukee, at a cost of $4,841 for four commissioners; two of them had discounts because they were speaking at the conference

o 2002, in New Orleans for a cost of $9,412 for four commissioners

County Manager Twa says a group from the county attends the conference each year, no matter where it’s held. He argues that the knowledge shared with other counties is invaluable. "Typically, there’s a number of sessions that deal with everything running from homeland security to e-government and transportation issues. And of course, our commissioners have been involved heavily in these areas." It’s an honor for the county, he says, to have commissioners who are so active on the national group’s boards and who are called on to speak as experts about Ramsey County programs.

One of those speakers will be Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. "There were two counties in the country chosen to speak on the issue of smoking bans, and we were one of them," she said.

Reinhardt, who represents Maplewood, North St. Paul and White Bear Lake on the County Board, said she has had only calls from two residents who were upset about the trip.

Reinhardt argued that the actual cost of the stay in Honolulu will be less than it was in Milwaukee; the factor that raises the price is in the airfare.

Over several years of attendance at the national conference, Reinhardt said she’s brought back knowledge of grant applications and program administration that have saved the county many more thousands of dollars than the trips cost. "We learn a lot and I bring back all kinds of information I share with county department heads. We’ve saved money for the last seven years as a result of going to the NACO conference."

Reinhardt says according to staff reports, county commissioners’ travel expenses have actually dropped nearly 40 percent since 2002. "We are truly trying to limit these things to things that bring benefits back to the county. The conferences and seminars in our budget are 1/100th of 1 percent of the total budget," she says.

She takes umbrage at the perception of the conference as a junket or a paid vacation. "I worked hard in Milwaukee, and I’ll work hard in Honolulu. If I were to step up and say, ‘I’ll pay for my own airfare,’ to me that would indicate I don’t place value on it, that I would be going for a vacation. Believe me, I wouldn’t go there for a vacation in July."

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