Sunday, July 20, 2003

Officials' travels under scrutiny

Butler County judge says costs too high

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer



HAMILTON - During the past year-and-a-half, Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox has been to more airports and hotels on county business than he can count.

So has the commissioners' administrative assistant, Dennis Nichols.They have traveled to destinations stretching across the United States and into Canada to attend high-technology and economic development conferences and meetings. Their county-financed trips have taken them to such locales as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Spokane, Seattle, Montreal, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, Fox, Nichols and three other county officials stayed in $282-per-night rooms at the plush Beverly Hilton for a three-day economics conference in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Fox, Nichols and the other two commissioners, Courtney Combs and Chuck Furmon, say the trips were necessary to help the fast-growing county develop and market its 100-mile fiber-optic network and to attract more high-paying jobs. Combs and Furmon approved each trip before it was taken.

But the trips have become a source of controversy.

Butler County Domestic Relations Court Judge Leslie Spillane recently issued written statements lambasting Fox and Nichols for traveling so much on the county dollar. She analyzed the commissioners' travel records after she and the commissioners accused each other of doling out excessive pay increases to their employees.

"When I took a look at their travel expenses, I was outraged," said Spillane, who has often clashed with Fox. "It is irresponsible given the condition of the county budget."

The county travel and training expenses for Fox and Nichols, who often traveled together, totaled $57,071 from January of 2002 through April of this year, according to an analysis of county records by the Enquirer. Fox's expenses were $29,230, and Nichols' were $27,841.

This is the breakdown of the costs of a trip by five Butler County officials to Milken Institute Global Conference at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif., from March 31 through April 2

Conference registration fees (meals included): $7,475

Airfare: $3,023

Hotel: $3,723

Car rental: $395

Outside meals: $669

TOTAL: $15,285

Over that same period, Combs' travel expenses were $4,568, Furmon's were $120, and Spillane's were $3,206. As another point of comparison, Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, who travels more than his two colleagues, had $7,003 in travel expenses last year.

Almost all of Dowlin's trips involved conferences and meetings of the County Commissioner Association of Ohio and the National Association of Counties. He traveled to New Orleans, Tampa and Washington, D.C., but most trips were to Columbus.

Last year, the Warren County commissioners and their staff spent $5,372 on travel and training, and the three Clermont County commissioners spent $15,255.

Fox said it's unfair to compare his travel expenses with commissioners of other local counties because Butler County has a more aggressive economic development strategy than they do.

"Our travel investment is a function of our efforts to grow jobs and bring businesses to Butler County," he said. "We believe it will pay dividends."

Originally, Spillane complained that Fox spent 91 days last year and 25 days this year traveling at the county's expense. Later, the county auditor's office said Fox traveled 70 days last year and 12 days this year. Spillane admitted she had been mistaken, but said Fox's travel days still were excessive.

"In my opinion, 70 travel days in one year is still outrageous," she said.

Fox, who has led Butler's high-tech drive, dismissed Spillane's criticism as a political cheap shot.

"Travel is an easy issue to criticize," he said. "To most people, travel equates to pleasure. To us, travel equates to useful information and more jobs. Virtually all of our travel was related to our fiber-optic network and economic development."

When it comes to luring businesses to Butler, he said, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings.

"We are one of the few counties in the country with a major fiber-optic backbone," Fox said. "How are businesses going to know that we've got it unless we market it?

"If you want to go duck hunting, you go where the ducks are. When you want high-tech businesses, you have to go to conferences where technology-oriented companies are present and tell them about Butler County."

Nichols, who manages Butler County's fiber-optic project, said the out-of-town fiber-optic conferences and seminars he's attended have provided him with information and contacts that have been invaluable to him in his work.

"We've gotten a great deal of value out of these conferences and expect to get a great deal more," said Nichols in a recent telephone interview while waiting to board a plane for an annual global high-tech communications conference and exhibition in Atlanta. "They've been essential."

He said that information he and Fox have obtained from these conferences have helped Butler avoid the mistakes other communities have made in trying to develop fiber-optic networks.

Spillane was especially incensed that Fox, Combs, Nichols, County Administrator Derek Conklin, Bruce Jewett, director of the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services, stayed at the Beverly Hilton for the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills from March 31 through April 2.

Spillane objects not only to the $282-per-night room rate they paid, but also to the cost of the whole trip - $15,285.

"I thought the expense of it was outrageous," she said.

Milken is a California economic think tank that Butler County has paid to develop a strategy to attract high-tech businesses and good-paying jobs.

Combs said that the conference, which was packed each day with programs from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., was well worth the price.

"I've been to two Milken conferences," he said. "They are the best I've ever been to. They'll have 12 to 15 Nobel Prize winners speaking on economics, health or government. The Milken is at the top of the list as far as what you get out of it."

The individual conference registration fee, which included meals, was $1,495. The fees cost Butler $7,475 for the five who went. They spent a total of $2,667 for airfare to Los Angeles.

Fox said the Butler contingent stayed at the Beverly Hilton because that was the site of the Milken conference.

"You want to be where the people are," he said, "because one of the things you want to do is network and forge relationships."

Combs said any savings from staying at a cheaper hotel outside Beverly Hills would have been offset by taxi fare.

Spillane also was upset that the commissioners used Job and Family Services money to pay for part of the trip.

"It's taxpayers' money that is designated for poor families, not for financing trips to Beverly Hills," she said.

Fox said it was an appropriate use of Job and Family Services money because the conference concerned the creation of jobs.

"We're hoping we can get people out of poverty by creating a work force that will give them an opportunity," he said. "There were other communities at the conference that teach low-income people computer skills and technological skills to make them more employable."

To illustrate the value of travel, Fox said he went at his own expense to Augusta, Ga., last year for meetings with insurance officials that resulted in the county's annual insurance cost being slashed by $1 million.

He pointed out that the commissioners have cut their travel budget in half this year, just as they asked other county departments to do.

The commissioners cut their office's travel budget from $70,000 to $35,000.

But Spillane said those numbers are deceptive because the commissioners have used other funds to travel, such as the development and water funds and federal money allocated to the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services.

Fox said the commissioners have used these funds to travel because it eases the burden on the general fund.

This isn't the first time Spillane and Fox have sparred over travel expenses.

Four years ago, Fox objected when Spillane asked the commissioners to pay $1,034 toward her trip to Paris, France, for a one-week course in French civil law. Spillane withdrew her request to avoid a battle, but said at the time that she believed the course would help her in domestic relations court work.

About two weeks later, Spillane asked the auditor's office for copies of the commissioners' travel expenses for the previous 19 months. The records showed Fox with $1,338 in travel expenses during that period, and Spillane voiced no complaints.

At the time, Fox accused her of pulling his travel records for revenge, but she denied it.

He says revenge also is the motive for the current tempest she's raising over his travel.

"This isn't rooted in her concern about the county budget," Fox says. "It's rooted in her hatred for me."

Says Spillane: "I think Mike believes he can do anything he wants. He is doing unlimited travel."


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