June 10, 2015 News » Cover Story

The jet set 

High-level El Paso County employees spent $335,000 on travel in five years

El Paso County's five-member Board of County Commissioners has spent nearly $200,000 since 2010 on 126 trips, routinely exceeding a travel budget that's inflated by more than a third since 2010. Along the way, commissioners have spent more on travel than the three Pueblo County commissioners, the nine-member Colorado Springs City Council and staff, and the Springs mayor's office — combined.

Most of the commissioners' travel, which has taken them from coast to coast, falls under one of two umbrellas: conferences put on by the National Association of Counties (NACO), a lobbying and education agency to which El Paso County has paid $107,826 in dues since 2010; and the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance's economic development fact-finding visits to other cities, according to records the county provided in response to the Independent's open-records request.

"Obviously there's a legitimate purpose for travel by the county commissioners," says Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. "The concern I have looking at this situation is the sheer scope of the travel, and given the limited funds of county government, there needs to be assurance to the public that decisions about travel are being made in a fiscally responsible manner."

That seems especially true given that two other officials — former County Administrator Jeff Greene, transitioning to become Mayor John Suthers' chief of staff, and Chief Public Information officer Dave Rose — have often joined commissioners on the road. Together they spent $139,059, bringing the grand total to $335,079.

But if those figures seem big, that's the cost of being at the "forefront" of state and national issues, says Commissioner and NACO officer Sallie Clark, whose 38 trips in five years cost taxpayers $71,043 and caused her to miss dozens of commissioner meetings.

"We can't be insulated," she says. "We have to be aware about what's going on at those levels, and how you do that is building relationships."

Since 2010, commissioners have spent exactly $196,020 on travel, which includes flights, hotels, meals and conference registrations. They've overspent their budget line item four out of five years, despite having bumped up that line item each year between 2010 and 2013. Over that period, it went from $50,000 to $75,000, where it's stayed since.

Meanwhile, Pueblo County's three commissioners spent a cumulative total of $62,232 on travel from 2010 through 2014. According to controller Aimee Tihonovich, commissioners attend NACO conferences, but rarely, if ever, do they all attend the same conference. She adds that commissioners are involved in Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI), a lobbying group that hosts conferences within the state and regular meetings in Denver.

It's worth noting that Pueblo County's population is only about 160,000. But at more than 600,000, Arapahoe County's population rivals that of El Paso County, and commissioners there operated on a travel budget of $21,000 in 2014, says Andrea Rasizer, the county's director of communication services. That paid for 12 trips for commissioners, which included all five attending two NACO conferences and two attending separate NACO committee meetings. Rasizer says the budget hasn't changed for several years.

On the city level, Colorado Springs City Council spent $63,507 on travel from 2010 through 2014, exceeding the budget once in 2012 by about $600. Though the allocation was increased from $21,000 that year to about $80,000 in 2013, councilors haven't spent anywhere close to that amount. Last year, for example, they spent $10,308.

Former Councilor Jan Martin, who left office in April due to term limits, describes Council travel as "rare."

"I probably traveled as much as anyone, because I sometimes went on those annual trips with the business community's [sic] of other cities," she says in an email. "I was also on the [Colorado Municipal League] Board so I went to their annual conference (which was in Colorado) each year."

Martin says she found her trips "time well spent" in talking with leaders of other cities. Other councilors, she says, rarely left the state for conferences, though some have attended the RBA trips or the occasional National League of Cities meeting.

Mayor Steve Bach's office spent $9,097 on travel in 2011 and 2012 combined, zero in 2013 and $1,150 in 2014. The mayor's travel budget was $8,900 last year and is $10,000 this year; records show Bach spent nothing on travel in 2015 before leaving office last week.

Of all current commissioners, Darryl Glenn has spent the least — $13,618 over four years. He's attended two conferences put on by Colorado Counties Inc., in Vail and Keystone, and made six out-of-state trips. Along with the other commissioners, he's gone to Washington, D.C., each of the past four years to commiserate with federal officials as part of the Regional Business Alliance's "legislative action trip," and attended a NACO meeting in Pittsburgh, and a "legislative conference" in Washington, D.C.

An Air Force Academy grad and military retiree, Glenn says taxpayers benefit from his efforts to stay abreast of defense budget issues.

"I'm there to find out updates at the Pentagon," says Glenn, noting he's the only veteran on the commission. "I try to spend the whole day getting updates on ... sequestration, [personnel] drawdowns." He adds that without being there, "You can't get the presentations right from the general, which tend to be free and open when you're sitting there discussing the mechanics behind the decisions."

Glenn says he hosts town hall meetings and meets with defense contractors to share what he's learned.

Asked about Greene's 40 trips and Rose's 36 trips since 2010, Glenn says, "If they were my employees, I would want to know the value from that. And how does it appear to the community?"

As for the NACO trips, which comprise the majority of commissioner travel, Glenn says, "I just think it should be heavily scrutinized. You have to look at what they're doing and whether taxpayers are getting a return on their investment. You have to stand before your constituents and say what they got out of it."

It's worth noting that the county funded only $223,821 in "critical needs" in the 2015 budget, while another $14.7 million in that category — ranging from more district attorney personnel to bridge repairs — was not funded.

Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who's spent about $27,700 on 23 trips since taking office with Glenn in 2011, says she's "picky" in choosing when to travel. "I go on trips pertinent to emergency preparedness," she says. She's gone to Seattle to observe its emergency response operations, and to Emmitsburg, Maryland, for training in preparedness at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute.

She's also attended meetings in Las Vegas of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which promotes the idea that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement officers in the land. Rightwingwatch.org reports that CSPOA's leader, Richard Mack, suggested in a recent speech that states should nullify the federal income tax. He's also urged local officials to ignore federal laws.

Amy Lathen, whose trips since 2010 have cost $42,453, and Dennis Hisey, who's spent $32,408 over the same period, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Clark's record year of travel came in 2013 at a cost of $22,009, and most of that was spent in the first half of the year. The expense was primarily due to her involvement in NACO, whose conferences accounted for seven of her 11 trips that year. Among the topics were "smart justice," "large urban counties" and "cyber for counties," records show.

Since Clark was elected second vice president of NACO in July 2013, that organization has funded her NACO-related travel, says association spokesperson Jamie Richards. So her travel expense to taxpayers has dropped significantly, to just $4,567 in 2014.

But money aside, Clark's travel remains relevant to locals in other ways. County travel records show she spent 56 days traveling in 2013 on taxpayer-funded trips, and meeting minutes show she was absent from 13 of the commission's 65 meetings that year. In 2014, after becoming NACO's first vice president, Clark missed 16 of 64 commission meetings. (Other commissioners were absent from a combined total of 15 meetings in 2013, and 14 in 2014.) Clark becomes president of NACO in July.

In a phone interview days before she flew to Hawaii for a NACO meeting last month, Clark said she and other commissioners "work around" her being absent by her expressing concerns to them about certain agenda items she'll miss.

"Business goes on," she says of the missed meetings, "and I'm providing a really important voice on the state and national level on issues that are important to our community.

"I've been to Washington, D.C., to speak on issues of importance," she adds, "to talk about disaster preparedness, and recovery issues that are extremely important to our community and others as we share best practices. County governments are an arm of the state and federal government, and we have to be mindful of issues that are happening."

For example, she says, she fought a proposed Clean Water Act rule she says could "impact our ability to handle stormwater." Interestingly, federal and state officials have said that rule actually will make things easier for agencies and the public ("The EPA is coming to get us ... or not," News, Sept. 17, 2014), and when Obama administration officials imposed it May 27, praise came from environmental groups including Trout Unlimited, Conservation Colorado and Environment Colorado. The last of them noted in a release: "The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years."

Clark also notes she's advocated for federal money for the Interstate 25/Cimarron Street intersection, and that she worked with NACO to secure $19 million for fire recovery in Larimer and El Paso counties after devastating fires in 2012.

Clark, in fact, says citizens, some of whom complain to her that the federal government "is broken," support her travel: "This is an opportunity to represent them at the federal level to reduce unfunded mandates and issues that are relevant to us. It's imperative we take an active role."

Common Cause's Nunez suggests the county adopt a policy to guide decisions about commissioner trips, including who travels, where, and how many go on the same trip. Rose says there is no such written policy, but he argues that taxpayers have received good value for commissioner and staff travel, according to a two-page statement issued by Rose in response to the Independent's questions.

County government, the statement says, "is fully engaged at the state and federal levels where laws, administrative regulations and programs that directly affect the county are developed." Through those efforts, Rose says, the county "has saved millions in local tax dollars in limiting federal mandates and working collaboratively with state and federal agencies," and brought in millions for emergency preparedness and for Fort Carson.

Rose's statement also justified the RBA trips, saying the slow economic recovery has placed "added strains" on county human services as the workload has grown for food stamps, low-income energy assistance and other safety net programs. Commissioners tagging along on RBA visits to other cities "with proven economic development models has demonstrated the importance of regional collaborations," Rose writes. "Best practices and innovative county, multi-agency management methods learned at home and beyond, by county leadership, have led to governing decisions in El Paso County which have resulted in millions of dollars of operational savings, improved credit ratings and improved service delivery to the citizens."

Pressed for specifics, he says via email that a trip to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, yielded a variety of ideas for agency cooperation and led to the acquisition of the Citizens Service Center, where multiple county offices are housed. The co-location there of the Small Business Development Center and the Colorado Procurement Technical Center grew from information learned on trips to Austin and Oklahoma City. Also, the proposed Pikes Peak Drainage Authority measure, defeated last November by voters, stemmed from commissioners learning about regional efforts in Portland, Oregon.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a county commissioner here from 2003 to 2011, took two trips in 2010 at a cost of $4,454, his last full year in office, but says more involvement in NACO helps the state and county.

"Because the federal government collects a lot of money, they also distribute lots of money," he says in an interview. "... It is important for local government to advocate with folks who are returning our tax dollars. It's important to be involved in that. I know there is some advantage for both Colorado and El Paso County to have individuals who are more active in NACO than I was."

Rose hits upon this point as well, noting that commissioners have secured "millions" in federal money — which isn't without irony considering that some commissioners, all of whom are Republicans, have voted against El Paso County accepting federal grants on philosophical grounds.

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