Tracking the Travel: Counting the Cost of Council Training

12News spent weeks obtaining 1200 pages of receipts and detailing the data to get to the bottom of which local official is spending the most to travel.

BEAUMONT-PORT ARTHUR - From Austin to Washington D.C. and just about everywhere in between, elected officials have traveled all over the United States on your dime.

Travel expenses are covered for city council members if they fall under certain guidelines.

12News spent weeks digging through 1,200 pages of travel receipts to see who is spending more and how they justify their travel.

We compared the travel habits of Beaumont and Port Arthur city council members and mayors from 2015 through this spring.

Southeast Texas mayors and council members spend from $100 to over $12,000 per year of taxpayer funds from their city's travel budgets depending on their destination and how often they travel.

Airfare or mileage, hotels, luggage and a meal allowance are some of the expenses that can be reimbursed when an elected official travels for city business or training.

Starting in Beaumont, we put the council members in order of spending over the last two-and-a-half years.

MORE | Beaumont City Council Expense Reports  2015 - 2017 (alphabetical)

Beaumont City Councilman At-Large W.L Pate Jr. had the highest spending at $28,000 for 24 trips.

His average cost-per trip fell at just under $1,200.

Pate has the lowest average cost-per-trip compared to other council member’s travel spending, 

Over the last 30 months, Pate took 19 Texas trips, three Washington D.C. trips and traveled to Pittsburgh and Nashville.

In Texas, he traveled to Austin eight times, Round Rock three times, San Antonio twice and six other cities once.

"The more you practice, the more you train, the better you're going to get at it,” said Pate. “When you have an opportunity either with the Texas Municipal League or National League of Cities to take advantage of that, you owe it to the citizens to do that"

The second highest spender was Robin Mouton with about $25,000 in travel expenses and coming in third was Gethrel Williams-Wright with $23,500.

In Port Arthur former District 2 council member Tiffany Hamilton spent almost $21,000 on 13 trips that cost an average of $1,600 per trip.

MORE | Port Arthur City Council Expense Reports  2015 - 2017 (alphabetical)

When we compare that number to other council members' average cost-per-trip, Hamilton falls in the middle of the pack.

She traveled to Austin five times, San Antonio once and made seven out-of-state trips.

"For those that have been discouraged from the numbers, meaning the cost of travel, not only for myself but also other council members, I would encourage them to give them a phone call, send them an email and ask, what is it that you've learned?” said Hamilton. “So that we even have the opportunity to share with you the information that we've learned and how we've used it to be able to implement for better change, for a positive future for our own community."

Willie Bae Lewis spent the second most with about $18,000 in travel expenses.

In third, Derrick Freeman turned in receipts totaling almost $14,000.

The most common reasons for in-state travel for both councils were to attend "Golden Triangle Days" in Austin and to participate in Texas Municipal League conferences.

Participation in National League of Cities conferences accounted for the majority of out-of-state travel.

TML and NLC offer training and resources for officials and "represents the interests of member cities before legislative, administrative, and judicial bodies at the state and federal levels."

Hamilton pointed out that because of the participation of some council members in these conferences, Chinese ambassadors have visited the city of Port Arthur for business relations.

There are rules outlined in city policies regulating the reimbursement process.

In Port Arthur, council members have to fly coach, cannot pay for a spouse and have to provide a receipt if their daily meals total more than $75.

Beaumont implements a similar policy, although food expenses are calculated differently and tipping is reimbursed up to $10 a day.

Looking through the records, it appears council members followed all the of the policies in place.

MORE | City of Beaumont FY 2017 budget 

MORE | City of Beaumont Travel Policy

MORE | City of Port Arthur 2016-2017

MORE | City of Port Arthur Travel Policy

Out of the 154 trips taken by Beaumont and Port Arthur city council members over the last two and a half years, only two packets raised red flags.

A $125 registration fee was paid for Morris Albright III, the former district 3 councilman in Port Arthur to attend Golden Triangle Days in March of 2015 however a notation indicated that the trip was canceled.

We reached out to Albright but did not hear back before publication.

We also found a cancelation notice on an expense packet for  Port Arthur District 5  councilman Willie Bae Lewis.

Lewis was signed up for an economic development conference in Cleveland, Ohio in September of last year.

We reached out to Lewis who said he had shown interest in attending but had asked who was paying for the conference.

When he allegedly did not receive a reply from the city, Lewis said he believed the trip to be called off but hotel, airfare and registration fees were all paid.

A travel advance receipt is also found in a copy of the expense packet.

Lewis says he got a call the morning of the trip by other council members but it was too late for him to make arrangements to attend.

The travel advance was refunded but a no show fee at the hotel and non-refundable airfare and registration cost the city $1,168.74.

This is a couple hundred dollars less than the city expects to earn from ambulance and wrecker permits this year.

They anticipate those fees to bring in $1,500.

Lewis says it came down to miscommunication with the city.

He also brought up concerns about individual council members taking too much of the budget to travel.

He said newly elected District 4 council member Harold Doucet is working on a proposed revision to the travel policy.

Doucet says he's passionate about holding council members accountable for tax payer dollars.

The councilman along with Kaprina Frank and Thomas Kinlaw III are all on a committee that plans to propose changes to the current city ordinance regulating travel.

While the committee still has a lot of work ahead of them, Doucet says he wants to see a tighter approval process.

The group hopes to have their plan presented to council by the end of August so that any changes would take effect before the new budget is approved.

The entire Beaumont city council spent $57,862 on travel and training in 2015. They spent $60,823 in 2016 and $24,632 through June of this year.

The Chief Financial Officer for the City of Beaumont shares that there is a $50,000 travel and training budget in place for council members for 2017.

Port Arthur city council members spent $35,767 on travel in 2015 and $46,639 in 2016.

Through the end of April of this year, council members have spent $20,311.

The city of Port Arthur's budget allows $39,000 for council travel but it is unclear if membership dues have a separate allotment.

While these totals for council travel might not seem like a lot, especially when compared to total city budgets, which are in the tens of millions, some may have a different perspective when tax payer dollars hang in the balance.

© 2017 KBMT-TV


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