Fulton County Commissioner Natalie Hall proposed an increase to the county’s travel budget. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton commissioners triple travel budget with little justification

Fulton County commissioners voted to more than triple the amount of money they can spend for travel and training each year, an increase one dissenting board member described as “ridiculously excessive.”

In addition to boosting the funds from $86,100 to $350,000, or $50,000 for each commissioner, the board also decided last month that those who don’t spend all their money on travel and training can use it as they deem fit, for any other job-related expense other than salaries.

“That is just an astronomical increase,” said William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “It sounds like taxpayer abuse to me, just based on the numbers. I would like to see the justifiable need.”

VIDEO: Previous Fulton commission news

Channel 2's Richard Belcher reports

Before the measure was approved in a December meeting, Commissioner Natalie Hall said it had been 16 years since the commission last raised the allotment. In that time, she said, travel and conference costs have soared. Hall — who spent $12,273 of the available $12,300 in 2018 — proposed upping the travel and training funds to $39,000. But Commissioner Marvin Arrington recommended $50,000 per board member instead.

“Not only do we need the training, but our staff needs the training as well,” Arrington added.

Hall also said longtime commissioners, who might have less of a need for professional development, should be able to use the earmarked money on other expenses.

The Fulton travel and training budget dwarfs those of some nearby county governments. In Clayton County, $67,000 was budgeted in 2018. In Cobb County, $50,500 was allocated. Gwinnett County budgeted $41,985 for commissioner travel and training in 2017, the last year figures are available. DeKalb County officials said they wouldn’t be able to provide travel expense figures by press time.

Fulton commissioners approved the increase in a 4-2 vote, after less than 10 minutes of discussion. The matter did not appear on the agenda made available to the public and was added after the meeting started.

Hall and Arrington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said the expense of conferences like the National Association of Counties and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia can stretch their budgets. Commissioners also go on fact-finding trips, like the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LINK trip, where local leaders visit other cities to see how those jurisdictions solve problems.

The National Association of Counties has three conferences a year, and registration for the next conference, in March, costs $515 for members. Hotel costs for the five days in Washington, D.C. are around $250 a night. To go to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia annual conference last year, and take two training classes, commissioners would have paid $880, plus hotel costs. That organization has two or three conferences annually, and offers classes throughout the year for $235 apiece, with some exceptions for longer or more involved classes, which are costlier.

Hausmann, who spent $11,943 on travel and training last year, said she has found a lot of value in the trips she’s taken, but thought $50,000 was “definitely too much.” She voted against the measure, saying she felt the increase “was exorbitant.”

Commissioner Bob Ellis, who spent $1,534 on travel and training in 2018, also voted against the increase. He called the boost “ridiculously excessive.” He was also concerned that residents hadn’t had an opportunity to weigh in on the idea, since it was added to the agenda the same day it was approved.

He said he opposed giving commissioners the ability to reallocate travel and training money, saying it’s problematic when there aren’t good controls on taxpayer dollars.

“It just creates opportunities for abuse,” he said. “While it’s not compensation, per se, people can view travel and conventions as benefits. Certainly, if there’s something on the floor increasing individual compensation, it should be aired out in a very public fashion.”

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts spent $1,654 on travel last year, but said he supported the measure because other commissioners, who travel more often, told him they needed additional funds.

But, he said, Hall and Arrington “ought to be prepared to explain it.”

“This is going to be an issue the public has some interest in,” he said. “That’s quite a jump.”

Perry, with Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said he was concerned that there appeared to be no study that supported the increase. He said making such a decision on the fly was irresponsible.

“How flippant are they being, throwing around $300,000?” he asked. “It flies in the face of open, responsible government. That really makes me angry. It’s one of the most irresponsible decisions I’ve heard about in a long time.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Georgia Ethics Watchdogs says the Fulton County Commission voted to triple its travel budget with no study to support the increase and no justification to the public. And there’s concern that there was little opportunity for public input, because the item wasn’t added to the commission’s agenda until after the meeting started.

TRAVEL AND TRAINING SPENDING

Fulton County commissioners raised their travel and training budgets to $50,000 per commissioner, up from $12,300 per commissioner annually. Here’s what commissioners spent in 2018.

  • Liz Hausmann, $11,943
  • Bob Ellis, $1,534
  • Lee Morris, $140
  • Natalie Hall, $12,273
  • Marvin Arrington, $12,272
  • Emma Darnell, $0
  • Robb Pitts, $1,654

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