Chattanooga council getting stingy on travel expenses

Chattanooga council getting stingy on travel expenses

December 24th, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in News

CITY COUNCIL TRAVEL

• 2002: $30,311.93

• 2003: $22,173.65

• 2004: $17,434.15

• 2005: $23,380.52

• 2006: $9,071.23

• 2007: $5,016.93

• 2008: $5,403.95

• 2009: $0

• 2010: $936.52

Source: City of Chattanooga

The Chattanooga City Council used to spend tens of thousands of dollars to travel all across the country, but no more.

Nine years ago, Chattanooga paid more than $30,000 for council travel. This year, total expenses are $936.52, city records show.

"There's an attitude of frugality," said Councilman Jack Benson, who was elected in 2001. "[Until now] we were never put in an economic situation that made us look at that."

Records for past years show council trips to Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle. This year, just two trips were requested and approved.

Council Chairman Manny Rico asked for $213.22 as reimbursement for hotel expenses during a trip to China. Councilman Peter Murphy headed to Cleveland, Ohio, for a National Youth Sports conference and asked for $723.30 in reimbursements for hotel, lodging and gas.

Mayor Ron Littlefield, who served two terms as a councilman in the 1990s and early 2000s, said he appreciated the council being thrifty during the recession. But he'd like for more council members to travel outside Chattanooga.

"I have been surprised no one is traveling," he said. "At a certain point, it becomes counterproductive."

Meeting counterparts in other cities gives officials a chance to "steal ideas" and keeps Chattanooga in the spotlight, he said.

"You can't get those ideas from watching the afternoon news," he said.

Randy Burns, the council's management analyst and internal auditor, said the overall travel budget has shrunk.

Ten years ago, the travel budget was around $45,000 and even included money for support staff to travel, he said. The 2010-11 fiscal year travel budget is $17,500, records show. Council members are reimbursed $200 a month in local travel expenses, and hardly anyone is taking advantage of that, he said.

He said there have been two elections in the last 10 years and the council has changed.

"We have different personalities and the environments are different," Burns said.

Benson said attitudes changed because of the recession and public scrutiny over the council increasing taxes and fees, especially stormwater fees.

Rico said he doesn't think travel is that necessary and that council members need to look at home first. This council's spending will be scrutinized, he said.

"The whole attitude of spending taxpayers' money has changed," he said. "We shouldn't spend any more than we have to."

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