Quincy city officials billed taxpayers nearly $18,000 to attend a three-day municipal conference at the upscale Hilton Chicago hotel in late September.
For Bourbounnais taxpayers, the cost was almost $11,000. And in Kankakee, it was about $10,000.
The Illinois News Network filed Freedom of Information Act requests with two dozen municipalities across the state seeking their expenses related to attendance at the conference. The FOIAs were sent to cities and villages ranging in population from more than 200,000 residents to fewer than 10,000.
Registration for the event is $310 per person for the full three days. An overnight stay at the Hilton Chicago cost $298 a night per room.
INN found that some attendees – from Aurora, DeKalb, Bradley and others – charged taxpayers $52.50 a day for valet parking. Others spent their community's full per diem on steak dinners, room service and other perks.
Of those municipalities examined, Quincy, population 40,500, spent by far the most. Located on the Mississippi River on the Missouri border, Illinois' "Gem City" also sent the most staff to the conference at 13.
“It’s very easy to spend other people’s money,” said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of the taxpayer watchdog website OpenTheBooks.com. “And what these managers and mayors have shown is that this is just one of a long string of reasons as to why our property taxes are so high in Illinois. We lead the country in the payment of property taxes to our local cities and municipal units of government. They don’t treat our money like we would treat their money.”
In response, IML Executive Director Brad Cole said “I don’t agree with Mr. Andrzejewski.”
Cole argued that IML's annual conference provides valuable information to city officials who then can serve taxpayers more efficiently in return.
“If you want local officials to know what’s going on, then they need the training, and they need to have the educational opportunities and they need to interact with other officials," Cole said. "So if you want to have good government, you have to have people involved who know what they’re talking about.”
Cole said the 2017 conference had 75 different sessions ranging “from attorneys seminars to how to attract economic development, rural retail development, working with Tax Increment Finance districts, regulating issues like drones.”
This year's speakers included the Illinois comptroller, representatives from the Department of Revenue, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund and more.
"So it’s a broad range of issues that cities deal with everyday,” Cole said.
Another speaker was Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka. Cole said Ditka’s speaker fees were picked up by sponsors, but he didn’t divulge how much Ditka, who charges up to $50,000 an engagement or more, cost.
Springfield Alderman Joe McMenamin, who only charged taxpayers for his $310 conference fee, said Ditka was surprisingly good.
“When I went to that I was kind of suspicious,” McMenamin said. “I had low expectations, but he did an outstanding job. He really got us pumped up and motivated and talked about motivation and attitude and I think everyone came away from that session in a better state of mind.”
The cities of Kankakee (total spending, $9,990) and Bourbonnais ($10,800) took full advantage, sending 11 and 10 officials, respectively. Peoria ($6,000), Bradley ($6,090) and DeKalb ($6,680) sent seven employees each.
On the other end of the spectrum, five municipalities surveyed – Alton, Champaign, Elgin, Grayslake and Sycamore – told INN they sent no one to the conference.
The suburban towns of Arlington Heights, Downers Grove and Schaumburg sent a single person.
LaSalle, population 9,200, sent four officials but, as per city policy, didn't allow them to expense hotel stays or more than a single lunch. The total cost to LaSalle taxpayers was $1,296, of which most was for registration fees.
IML memberships come from taxpayers from each city paying a membership fee.
“The lowest is $150 a year all the way up to $25,000 for the city of Chicago,” Cole said of the voluntary memberships. “Most of the dues are less than $1,000 to $2,000. It’s all based on population.”