- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) — When eight public officials from St. Paul went to Norfolk one year ago for an annual convention of municipal officials, their tab cost the 1,000 residents of the Southwest Virginia coalfields town $9 each.

In all, the officials spent $9,030.69 — more than their struggling town spent last year on library books, litter pickup and gifts to charity combined, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Sunday in a detailed accounting of spending at the Virginia Municipal League convention last fall.

All but one of them stayed four nights at a hotel near the downtown waterfront and filled up on seafood, spending $339.44 at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Three played golf at taxpayer expense.

“We don’t regret it, because I think everyone on the council benefited,” St. Paul Treasurer Kathy Chafin said of the trip, “but for a town our size, it’s too expensive.”

Miss Chafin, who attended the conference, blamed high prices in Norfolk rather than extravagance by the conventioneers, the newspaper reported.

St. Paul’s expenditures at the convention stand out because the town is so small. But St. Paul officials were not alone in the way they approached the Virginia Municipal League convention, an annual gathering at which city, town and county officials discuss common issues and lobbying strategies.

In all, 543 public officials from 114 localities flocked to the Norfolk Waterside Convention Center from Oct. 20 to Oct. 22, at the height of the state budget crisis. They spent about 410,000 taxpayer dollars, according to an examination of expense reports by the Times-Dispatch.

The convention offered seminars on such topics as utility-rate structures, federal transportation funding and services for at-risk youth. It also offered plenty of opportunity for good food and good times at taxpayer expense. Some conventioneers refrained. Others helped themselves.

Taxpayers footed the bill for 100 spouses and guests of public officials. And dozens of those spouses were treated not only to meals but $40 museum and garden tours and $40 rides around the Hampton Roads harbor on the tall ship American Rover.

Some attendees billed taxpayers for valet parking, room service, in-room movies, tips to bellmen and housekeepers, and restaurant meals.

Among those were the seven conventioneers from Colonial Heights, who spent $830 on group meals and $5,275 at the convention in all. Each of the Tri-Cities localities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell and Petersburg spent more at the convention than did Richmond, which has more than double the population of the three cities combined.

Less than one month after the municipal officials met in Norfolk, 415 officials of Virginia’s counties gathered for their separate annual convention at The Homestead, a resort in Bath County. Together the two conventions of local-government officials cost taxpayers more than $700,000.

The Norfolk convention began five days after Gov. Mark Warner announced plans to lay off 1,800 employees and reduce many government services. Voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were being asked to accept tax increases for new roads that the government was too strapped to build.

Expense reports do show that many officials at the Norfolk convention tried to hold down costs.

Charles Moore, town manager of Mount Jackson in Shenandoah County, spent his two nights at the convention in his camper in a campground “because it saved the town money,” he said. “I do what I can to save my employer money.”

Conventioneers from Occoquan reimbursed the public for the $5-a-day difference between self-parking and valet parking.

Some attendees shared hotel rooms, ate in burger joints, paid their own travel costs and took care to pay their spouses’ expenses out of their own pockets.

Virginia Beach, by far the state’s largest city with 420,000 residents, sent only two representatives to neighboring Norfolk and spent a total of $930. Had Virginia Beach spent proportionally as much as tiny St. Paul, the city’s convention cost would have exceeded $3.78 million.

Several public officials reimbursed the taxpayers for expenses after the Times-Dispatch inquired about them, including Fredericksburg City Council member Thomas P. Fortune.

Mr. Fortune and his wife traveled to Norfolk a day early “basically just because we wanted to have some fun,” he said. The hotel’s computer would not let him pay for the extra day at checkout time, he said, and afterward he forgot. He thanked the newspaper for reminding him to reimburse the city $229.

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