SPRINGFIELD – City officials from across the state — including five from Edwardsville, two from Granite City and a dozen from O’Fallon — gathered in September at the annual Illinois Municipal League Conference in Chicago to learn how to manage municipal budgets during tough fiscal times.
Many kept a tight budget during the conference and others spent upwards of $1,000 per person to send a representative.
This is happening at a time when the effective property tax rate for many cities has gone up by more than 80 percent over the last decade. And many southern Illinois communities are cutting back on core government services such as police and fire protection.
Illinois News Network filed Freedom of Information Act requests with municipalities across the state seeking copies of expense reports filed by elected and administrative officials who attended the conference.
Edwardsville sent City Attorney Jeffrey Berkbigler, City Treasurer Rich Hampton, City Administrator Tim Harr and Alderman Craig Louer to the conference. Records from the Chicago Hilton show Mayor Hal Patton was also in attendance, but no reimbursement requests were filed on his behalf.
Berkbigler and Harr traveled via Amtrak while Louer opted to drive the 550 round-trip miles to Chicago. Mileage reimbursements totaled $496.96. Harr drove nearly 300 miles from Edwardsville to Normal at 56 cents per mile, according to the expense report.
Parking receipts for leaving vehicles at the Hilton garage totaled $304 — mostly valet parking — while fees for taxis and other transportation came out to about $35.
The group spent $162.50 on meals and each stayed at the Chicago Hilton for the duration of the conference.
Granite City’s City Treasurer Gail Valle and Deputy Treasurer Shari Grim attended.
They arrived Friday night and attended Saturday sessions before leaving Sunday. Valle registered for Saturday’s events, while Grim attended a Saturday morning treasurer’s session to obtain credits for certification and therefore didn’t have to register for the conference or pay a registration fee, Valle said.
The bill included $521 for a two-night stay in a shared room at the Chicago Hilton and two, $300 round-trip airline tickets on Southwest Airlines. The city also reimbursed Valle’s $160 registration fee.
Valle said the two paid for their own meals and did not charge the city.
Granite City spent a total of $1,281 to send two representatives to the conference.
The group representing O’Fallon included the mayor, aldermen, the city’s parks and recreation director and the city clerk. According to expense reports, it cost more than $16,000 to send the group to Chicago — a total that includes registration fees, hotel rooms, meals, parking and transportation costs.
Members of the group stayed in separate rooms at the Hilton. According to expense reports, $10,252 was spent on hotel rooms for the group. The bills ranged from $521 to $1,424 for three nights in the hotel and valet parking for Mayor Gary Graham. In fact, most of O’Fallon’s representatives opted for valet parking while at the conference at a cost of about $47 per day.
Among those who drove instead of taking public transportation, according to FOIA documents, the mayor, City Clerk Philip Goodwin and Alderman John Drolet were reimbursed .56 per mile for driving to and from the conference — a round-trip distance of about 600 miles. Graham was paid $336 for mileage, Goodwin expensed $328 and Drolet’s mileage totaled $323.
An additional $379.72 was expensed for other transportation costs, such as taxis and airline tickets. O’Fallon City Administrator Walter Denton expensed flights to and from the conference totaling $224.
All but one member of the group registered for three days of the conference, which was $305 per person. Dale Funk signed up for one-day registration at $160. In total, $3,210 worth of expense reports were turned in for registration fees.
Reimbursements for meals, which ranged from $99 to $145, totaled of $626.86.
The remaining representatives for O’Fallon were Alderman Jerry Albrecht, Alderman Herb Roach, Alderman Harlan Gerrish, Alderman Ed True, Alderman Jim Hursey , Superintendent of Recreation Andrew Dallner, Director of Parks and Recreation Mary Hutchinson and Alderman Courtney Cardona.
Deciding what to spend
Proximity appeared to be the largest factor in whether attendees stayed in the Hilton at taxpayers’ expense rather than commuting. The cost per person, per night for a main level room at the Chicago Hilton was $267.47 once taxes were added and executive level rooms were $308.47 per night.
Not all cities saw the conference as a necessary expense.
“Due to budgetary cut backs any City elected officials or municipal employees wanting to attend the 2014 Illinois Municipal League Conference were to pay their own expenses. There would be no reimbursements for attending said conference,” said Kris Schmitz, a spokeswoman for the city of Kankakee.
Other communities took a similar view. For example, the city of East Moline did not send anyone to the conference.
Others who attended the conference were quite cost conscious. For example, the Village of Downers Grove sent three people to the conference but each rode public transportation and didn’t bill the city for meals.
The Village of Orland Park was equally thrifty, sending two representatives who chose to self-park in the Hilton guest parking lot instead of the hotel’s more expensive valet service.
The village also places caps on meal expenses.
(Scott Reeder and Lesley Nickus report for Illinois News Network, an organization of the Illinois Policy Institute).