Wednesday was budget hearing day at the County Commission. Commissioners set the tentative tax rate and will finalize it in September.
While much of the budget talk wrapped around the big stuff, like the sheriff’s office and road resurfacing, it was a 15-minute debate that caught my attention.
Certain conversations become personal to commissioners and travel is one of them. Commissioners believe they should be the arbiter of their travel and suggestions to the contrary rarely go well.
Each commissioner is budgeted $3,200 a year for travel plus $740 for training, though we heard Wednesday that the training money is primarily used to pay registration fees for conferences.
The recommendation, advanced by Commissioner Holly Davis, was to bump the $3,200 in travel to $10,000 for each commissioner,and double the training amount.
It failed due to what I call the three Ps: priorities, perception and politics.
We can debate till the cows come home about the benefits of commissioner travel. Logic says that more training and interaction with commissioners from other counties in Florida and across the U.S. would bring a decent return to Citrus County.
Davis, in particular, is interested in attending National Association of Counties conferences that are usually held out of state. She’s attended two and participates in NACo committees on economic workforce development.
In 2021-22, both Davis and Commissioner Ruthie Davis Schlabach spent more than $5,000 each in travel.
As of April 30 this year Davis had topped $3,700 in travel and was on pace to hit $6,000 before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, according to budget projections.
In a budget of millions, it’s not a lot of money and easy to pass by, but Commissioner Diana Finegan bluntly asked: How can we hold other departments and agencies to a 3% budget increase and then triple our travel?
“When we’re asking others to cut, we should do the same,” she said.
Commissioner Jeff Kinnard agreed. Sharpen the pencils and this is a good place to start.
Davis could see where the conversation was headed and she wasn’t happy about it. It especially got a little edgy when Finegan, Kinnard and Commissioner Rebecca Bays all said they often pay for their own travel expenses to out-of-town functions.
Then Davis suggested that the others feel the way they do because they can personally afford these travel expenses. Other commissioners, she said, might not.
Kinnard jumped on that.
“It has nothing to do with the net worth of anyone,” he said. “It’s staying within a budget.”
County commissioners are paid $73,227 annually and they generally get the same 3% raise each year everyone else in government receives.
“The public pays us very well here to do these jobs,” Kinnard said. “Some of (travel) may have to come out of our own pocket.”
No one is saying that conferences and networking aren't valuable. But where does it stack on the three Ps?
— Priorities. Well, in a year when commissioners want to squeeze as much as possible out of the budget without breaking the bank on taxes, I’d say it's a very low priority. There’s been virtually no board discussion on travel.
— Perception. Another easy one. As Finegan said, the county commission can’t tell other departments and agencies to cut every unnecessary dime and then turn around and triple their individual travel budgets. It’s just not a good look.
— Politics. Easiest of them all. Unless the public is behind it, why bother?
Davis’ argument was not new. It fell by the wayside just like every other commissioner who tried the same thing over the past 30-plus years.
Travel costs are a political loser. Unless a commissioner can draw a real cause-and-effect of attending conferences and something awesome happening in our community, the public sees them as a waste of money.
Traveling to conferences is beneficial, no doubt. But it’s not a priority, it creates an unfavorable perception among other budgeting agencies within the county, and the public isn’t sold on it.
Davis tried to get the travel bump from $3,200 to $5,000. No takers.
And that’s that.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.