"Today is your day. You're off to great places. You're off and away!" wrote Dr. Seuss in Oh, The Places You'll Go. He could have been writing about city of Boise officials and staff, who regularly packed their bags during 2016--traveling as far away as Germany and Mozambique, to Canada and California, and closer to home with trips to Idaho Falls and Sun Valley.
No matter how far or near, each trip was well documented and approved by the Boise City Council.
In a series of votes during most of the Council's 2016 scheduled meetings, lawmakers gave the stamp of approval to at least 78 trips, most of them taxpayer-funded. Whether for training, conferences, strategy sessions or recruitment, representatives from the Boise departments of Parks and Recreation, Planning and Development, Economic Development, Public Works, Arts and History, Fire and Police all sent city employees packing this past year. Some approvals have already been green-lighted for 2017.
An analysis of city-approved travel and business meals published earlier this year indicated record keeping and overall transparency of those expenses was deemed satisfactory by the Office of Internal Audit, adding the trips were "supportive of the City's business." Only a limited number of minor issues—small mathematical errors or reports not submitted within a five-day timeframe—were noted.
It's a far cry from how Boise officials handled travel expenses in past years, when City Hall was dogged by scandals related to improper allocation of taxpayer dollars that led to the resignation and 2003 conviction of former Mayor Brent Coles, who admitted to being reimbursed for a 1999 personal trip and tickets to a Broadway musical in 2002.
There are no Broadway shows or personal trips listed in the pile of travel and trip expense reports approved by the Boise City Council for 2016, and each report is detailed and itemized—but expenses continue to increase. In Fiscal Year 2016, the city of Boise, which posts travel costs to two primary accounts—travel/meetings and travel/training—spent a total of $884,726.
Someone Else's Dime
Some of the more elaborate trips taken by Boise city staff, such as visits to Mozambique, Germany and Hawaii, carried high price tags, but most of those expenses weren't shouldered by taxpayers.
For example, Friends of Zoo Boise picked up the tab for three trips to Mozambique, where Zoo Boise Director Steve Burns and two colleagues visited Gorongosa National Park in Africa. Cultural Vistas, an international nonprofit, paid for Diana Lachiondo of the mayor's office, to participate in 10-day, multi-city trip to Germany as part of the Welcoming America Transatlantic Cultural Exchange. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration picked up the cost for Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg to attend its September meeting in Washington, D.C. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network paid for Boise Public Works Director Steve Burgos to attend a conference in Toronto, Canada. Boise State University paid for Boise Police Officer Brek Orton to travel to Honolulu, where he served as a security and police liaison at the Boise State vs. Hawaii football game.
Brek's boss, Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, attended a few law enforcement conferences in Virginia and Maryland, all of which were paid for by the FBI.
Last but not least, the American Association of Airport Executives has promised to reimburse Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp for most of her seven-day trip to Kauai in January 2017 for its annual conference. According to an expense report already approved by the Boise City Council, the Kauai trip will cost $3,601 and AAAE has agreed to reimburse the city $2,450. The city will still have to cough up quite a bit for registration fees, however.
On the High Fees
If there is a "dirty little secret" in corporate travel, it's not fancy hotel rooms or expensive meals; it's the fees. Some conferences are notorious for charging exorbitant registration fees, which, if attended by public officials, are paid for by taxpayers.
For Hupp's upcoming January trip to Kauai, the city is on the hook for the $745 registration fee—almost the same price as a round-trip plane ticket to Hawaii.
Last September, Hupp traveled to Reno, Nev., to attend the annual Boyd Group International Aviation Forecast Summit. The cost of the three-day trip totaled $2,537—63 percent of which was the $1,595 registration fee.
In February 2017, Hupp is scheduled to attend the annual Routes America Conference in Las Vegas. The total travel expense for the four-day conference is $3,228—more than half of which is the $1,772 registration fee.
The real jaw-dropper was the Social Media and Storytelling Summit last July in Palo Alto, Calif., attended by new Boise Community Engagement Director JoAnne Anderson. The total for the three-day conference was $3,264—the registration fee was $1,895.
Take a Ride Along... Or Not
Perhaps the most surprising travel expenses were linked to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Leadership Conference, a three-day event hosted in Sun Valley. Boise sent six representatives: Council members Elaine Clegg, Maryanne Jordan, Lauren McLean, Ben Quintana and TJ Thomson, as well as Economic Development Director Nic Miller.
Each official spent about $52 per meal and about $350 for lodging at the Sun Valley Resort. However, each also submitted reports for $180 in mileage reimbursement, indicating all six drove the 314 miles to Sun Valley in separate vehicles. In total, Boise taxpayers were on the hook for nearly $4,200 for the Sun Valley event.
Keep Those Bags Packed
There's every reason to believe Boise officials and staff will continue to rack up frequent flier miles in the new year. Thus far, in three first three months of Fiscal Year 2017, which began in October, the city's travel expenses have topped $250,000.