For the past 10 years, the combined travel and conference budget for the five Flagler County commissioners has averaged $11,000 a year. In the current year, the travel budget was set at $15,850.
The proposed budget for next year? $45,000—a staggering 184 percent increase.
The increase shocked Commissioner Barbara Revels, who chairs the commission. She called the increase “obscene.” She is adamantly opposed.
She is the only one.
Two of her colleagues—Frank Meeker and Nate McLaughlin—said the increase is necessary to enable commissioners to attend conferences (McLaughlin at one point let slip the word “junket,” to Meeker’s displeasure) and meet officials and develop “relationships” that then lead to more money for county government.
Revels was not opposed to an increase in the travel budget. But without citing dollars, she noted that each commissioner is paid over $50,000 a year as it is and gets a travel budget. She favored increasing that budget modestly, to $20,000 split five ways. Again, Meeker and McLaughlin protested, while Commissioner George Hanns at times supported the men and at other times proposed setting a lower budget, then bringing specific travel plans to the commission for approval. (That would not be workable, Revels reminded him, as the commission must set a budget going into the year.)
The protracted, at times snippy, at times pouty discussion at this morning’s commission workshop on the general fund budget left County Administrator Craig Coffey grasping for a compromise as he sought to maneuver out of the way of having his staff make travel decisions for commissioners, especially as some of them like to travel more than others.
“I disagree with the additional travel needs for travel conferences, I’m sorry,” Revels said.
“I don’t, but I know you do. That’s OK,” Meeker snapped.
The budget Coffey was proposing would raise each commissioner’s travel allowance to $9,000, though currently the entire cost of conference attendance is about $6,500 per commissioner—well over the travel budget of every one of the past 10 years.
Meeker says he spends a lot of time in Tallahassee, not just at conferences. “I have three committees that I’m on,” he said, “that all require transportation out of county, with subgroups that I’m also associated with within those organizations that are either Orlando meetings, Tallahassee meetings or Tampa meetings, and it’s just not covered under these numbers. And I’m the one that’s doing the most traveling.”
“Some of us travel out of the area on meetings as well,” Revels said. After Hanns inexplicably diverted the conversation to the shame of miscreants breaking into cars and the lack of money for libraries, Revels, intent on not letting the matter slip, returned to the charge. “I’m objecting to the travel increase,” she said, proposing the first of three compromises. Each one would fail in turn. “If we spent $17,800 last year, then bump it to $20,000, not $45,000—not an additional $35,000.”
“We need to make sure that these opportunities are funded because there’s a direct benefit to the citizens of Flagler County,” McLaughlin said. “I mean, that’s where we go and build those relationships, get these grants, get these dollars. These relationships are important to what we’re doing for the citizens here.”
“I spent less than $500 in travel and came back with half a million from the district,” Meeker said, apparently referring to grant money from the water management district, though it’s not at all clear whether travel was the difference: the county administration does its work, too.
“I’m not suggesting that we stay with the existing budget but I’m suggesting that adding $30,000 is obscene for what we’re already compensated for our jobs,” Revels said. (Commissioners currently make $50,916. The salary is set by the state. The money is paid from Flagler’s general fund.)
“If this board doesn’t care that much about it I’m not going to sign up for any of those FAC leadership positions or anything like that, I’m not going to do it,” McLaughlin said, referring to the Florida Association of Counties.
So far this year the commission’s travel has exceeded $20,000. Coffey hinted at his recurring dilemma and not wanting to be in a position to turn down commissioners’ requests. “My suggestion was maybe an allowance per commissioner. That might be a way, that way staff doesn’t have to get in the middle,” he said. “The commissioners could choose what they want to go to and what they don’t.”
“I don’t agree with $9,000 per commissioner. I think that’s crazy,” Revels again insisted before trying her second compromise: She proposed $5,000 per commissioner. She got nowhere, even though Coffey said the amount would likely cover most travel by commissioners.
“I’ll go along with what you want to do,” McLaughlin said, unconvinced, “but let’s make a policy statement, and say we want to influence for the sake of Flagler County residents or we’ll just make the phone calls and send letters,” which he called “not effective at all.”
Revels, in a third attempt at compromise, then moved the per-commissioner allowance to $6,000. Meeker objected, speaking of his trips to Tallahassee and Orlando.
“Do you use a county car when you go there?” Revels asked.
“No,” Meeker said.
“You have that option,” she said.
“I do,” Meeker said, “except there’s problems with some of my requirements right now that make those things just uncomfortable on a four-hour drive to Tallahassee, and I tried it in the van.” Meeker is in chemotherapy as he battles cancer.
“I drive all over the state for Pace and I don’t get anything for that.” Revels said.
“Well, you’re not carrying extra things around, Barbara. I am,” Meeker said.
Just last weekend, Revels traveled with McLaughlin and Hanns in one car to Tallahassee, while Meeker traveled with Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, so the five commissioners could accept an award for historical renovations at Princess Place. The trip cost $189 per hotel room—they stayed in five separate rooms—plus mileage and meals, as they stayed overnight. It’s unclear why all five felt compelled to go. The trip never came up in today’s discussion.
“I was trying to offer a compromise but it doesn’t appear that you’re willing to compromise,” Revels finally said. “I just think we have a tight budget year, we’re talking about raising millage, we’re talking about what our employees are going to get, how they’re going to pay for health care, and we’re talking about traveling.”
Coffey finally proposed putting in $35,000 in the travel budget, which would still amount to doubling the current year’s budgeted amount. But there was no clear consensus. Commissioners were eager to move on to other parts of the budget.