By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
NEW HANOVER CTY - The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved a new Travel Policy during their Monday February 6th, meeting.
The policy caps each Commissioner's travel expenses to $4,000 per fiscal year and begins immediately.
The commission voted 3 to 1 with Commissioner Rob Zapple voting against the new cap. The Board will have the option of revisiting the cap each year when planning the fiscal budget.
Commissioner Patricia Kusek explained she brought up the issue and asked County staff to bring a resolution to the Board. She said, "It's my feeling that as elected officials of New Hanover County, this Board of Commissioners has a fiduciary responsibility for all of our taxpayer dollars big and small. Put simply, we should treat every taxpayer dollar like it was our own. Even modest amounts of money have huge symbolic value in the eyes of our citizens. To that end, the Board of Commissioners should have a formal travel policy such as this that mirrors the travel policy that all New Hanover County employees are subjected to. It assures our taxpayers that we as their elected officials are not getting special treatment and provides clear accountability."
Kusek recommended adopting a resolution stating, "With the following included. First, each New Hanover County Commissioner will be limited to a total of $4,000 per fiscal year, non-transferable, and two, that this cap will begin immediately and be applied to this fiscal year which began July 1st, 2016."
Commissioner Rob Zapple said, "I support the travel policy resolution that was proposed by the staff but I believe that should be adopted. However, I oppose changes to the policy that would cap at the $4,000 level individual commissioner's allowances and financially restrict the commissioner's ability to represent and conduct legitimate business on behalf of the county."
He explained, "There has been a misperception surrounding the public conversation of the commissioners travel expenses. That there currently is no limit on expenses and there are no rules. That's false. The annual county budget for travel is $21,566. That money is spent directly on registration fees, certification fees, UNC School of Government fees for required classes for commissioners and certification classes for our County Clerk, car mileage, airfare, lodging, out of town meals for the five commissioners, the County Clerk and two administrative assistants that work for the County Clerk."
He said, "The irony of this discussion is that it is not about the County's ability to pay for legitimate travel expenses. The amount of money that is being discussed is miniscule in proportion to the overall County budget. However, it is symbolic and as with all County functions the cost benefit ratio should be addressed."
Zapple said, "At the core of this discussion is the value of the conferences, committee meetings and relationships that are forged through one-on-one meetings with state legislators, elected officials in Washington D.C. and group discussions with county commissioners and county managers from other parts of our state and from across the entire United States. Is there a value for the residents of New Hanover County for our commissioners and county manager to travel to these conferences and meetings, yes, I believe there is. Tremendous value."
He said, "I believe there is enormous benefit to having peer to peer conversations about issues that are common to all counties, talking with those that may have faced the same challenges that you're having now or getting a new perspective on an issue that may be coming at you soon."