Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (left) accepts a gift from Nanjing Mayor Ji Jianye during a visit to China in 2012.
Photo: Channel 2 Action News
Photo: Channel 2 Action News

Metro Atlanta officials boost travel spending

The elected leaders of metro Atlanta’s five largest local governments spent about 9 percent more taxpayer dollars on travel and training last year than they did in 2012, even as some of them prepared to raise taxes and cut spending on popular public services.

Thirty-four officials from the city of Atlanta and the counties of Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett traveled to such cities as New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Houston in 2013, as well as to Georgia locales such as Savannah and Lake Lanier Islands, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found. Collectively they spent nearly $210,000 in public money last year traveling to conferences and other events.

Leading the way: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who spent $27,988 on travel in 2013. Other top spenders included Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd ($17,799), Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves ($12,162), Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore ($11,795) and Fulton Commissioner Joan Garner ($11,517).

Some taxpayers doubt elected officials need to spend so much jetting around the country after years of tax hikes and budget cuts have left many residents paying more for less service. Fulton commissioners — who spent nearly $40,000 on travel and training last year — just passed a budget that anticipates a 15 percent property tax increase and cuts library hours and other services.

“They really need to set an example,” said Jim Honkisz, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. “That example has to start with their own personal budgets and their travel expenses.”

Katherine Willoughby, professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University, agreed commissioners can spend less. She said new technologies such as Skype can allow public officials to stay put in metro Atlanta yet participate in training conferences held in other cities.

Elected officials say the conferences and other travel provide valuable training and good ideas that help them better serve constituents.

“When Mayor Reed travels on official business at taxpayer expense, it is always for the benefit of the city’s citizens,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Carlos Campos.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested information on travel and training expenditures by 42 county commissioners, city council members, mayors and chief executives of the five largest local governments in metro Atlanta. These are the elected officials — nearly all of them part-time — who oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on services such as police, courts, parks, libraries and social services.

Among the newspaper’s findings:

  • Atlanta officials spent more than $85,000 on travel and training last year — by far the most of any local government. However, the city has a mayor and 16 council members, including the council president, while the other governments examined had five to eight elected leaders. When the number of elected officials is taken into account, Fulton County spent the most — nearly $5,700 per elected office.
  • Eight of the 42 officials the newspaper examined spent nothing on travel last year, and three others spent less than $1,000. Five spent more than $10,000.
  • Officials in four of the five governments raised their collective travel spending last year. Cobb led the way with a 54 percent increase, followed by Gwinnett (18 percent), DeKalb (10 percent) and Atlanta (5 percent). Fulton commissioners collectively cut travel spending about 3 percent last year.

Elected officials traveled for a variety of reasons. Mayor Reed, for example, is chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He attended events hosted by the group in Washington, D.C., New York and Utah.

Reed also met with President Barack Obama at the White House in July and attended the president’s second inauguration. And he traveled to the Panama Canal with Vice President Joe Biden, participated in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and attended a Clinton Global Initiative event in Chicago.

Campos said Reed’s work with the mayor’s group has allowed him to “lead discussions and bring back information on best practices around the nation that can be applied here in Atlanta.”

Moreover, Campos said, Reed’s travels to Washington have “cemented his strong relationship with the Obama administration.” That relationship, he said, has helped Georgia win expedited approval for deepening the Port of Savannah and have allowed Reed to secure more than $200 million in federal funding for such projects as the Atlanta streetcar, the Beltline and community-oriented police officers.

“We believe our city is better and stronger as a result of Mayor Reed’s business travels and that Atlantans have directly benefited from them,” Campos said.

Fulton County’s Eaves visited Washington at least five times last year, citing similar benefits. He also attended a Smart Justice Advisory Committee meeting in Los Angeles and launched his own “smart justice” initiative using information he learned there. The initiative aims to find ways to reduce the cost of Fulton’s criminal justice system.

Eaves said various conferences have helped him be a better elected official.

“There’s a professional aspect to being a politician,” Eaves said. “It involves growing as a person, growing as a public official.”

Other elected officials cited similar benefits from their travels.

Willoughby, the GSU professor, said elected officials do gain from professional development.

“You’ve got people who come into office and they need to know the legal foundations for their jobs,” she said. “They need to understand new ways of doing business.”

But Willoughby said spending on travel is usually one of the first things governments cut in tough economic times.

“Everyone in government doesn’t need to go to every conference.”

Honkisz, the Fulton Taxpayer Association president, acknowledged that the nearly $40,000 Fulton commissioners spent on travel and training last year is a “drop in the bucket” of the county’s $546 million budget. But he still thinks local governments should trim travel spending more.

“I’m sure executives in the private sector spend as much, if not more, in terms of travel and the like,” he said. “But at a period of time when they’re asking for a tax increase and they’re cutting back on public services, every penny they spend for conferences and that sort of thing ought to be scrutinized a little more closely.”

Local officials’ travel spending

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained travel and training expenditure information for more than 40 elected officials from the five largest local governments in metro Atlanta. The chart shows the top 10 spenders for 2013, along with a summary of how much officials in each government spent collectively in 2012 and 2013. For a complete list of local officials and their travel spending, visit www.myajc.com.

Government official, 2013 travel and training

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, $27,988

Atlanta Councilwoman Joyce M. Sheperd, $17,799

Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves, $12,162

Atlanta Councilwoman Felicia Moore, $11,795

Fulton Commissioner Joan Garner, $11,517

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee, $9,776

Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, $9,609

DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, $9,515

*DeKalb Commissioner/CEO Lee May, $8,959

Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, $8,955

*May became interim CEO in July 2013

Travel spending by government

Government Elected offices** 2012 travel and training 2013 travel and training % change 2013 spending per office
Atlanta 17 $80,902 $85,213 5.3% $5,013
Cobb 5 $10,726 $16,484 53.7% $3,297
DeKalb 8 $38,537 $42,426 10.1% $5,303
Fulton 7 $41,018 $39,635 -3.4% $5,662
Gwinnett 5 $21,188 $24,940 17.7% $4,988
  42 $192,370 $208,700 8.5% $4,969

**Includes county commissioners, city council members, the Atlanta mayor and DeKalb CEO; ***Gwinnett totals include some mileage reimbursements for local travel

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