County officials’ travel expenses vary widely

The work-related travel by certain Santa Rosa County officials at taxpayers’ expense more than doubled during the past year, while some others cut back on business trips.

From a New York Times travel trade show in Manhattan to a National Association of Counties annual conference in Los Angeles, the receipts in county records total thousands of dollars spent during 2016 through last month by commissioners and the Economic Development Office, among others.

The generally accepted justification for these trips is based essentially on the business axiom, “It takes money to make money.” Thus the trips are viewed as an investment. With their traditional networking breakfasts of coffee and doughnuts, to dinners where picking up the tab is sometimes de rigueur for government officials wooing private industry figures in the name of economic growth, the trips rarely draw much scrutiny.

Indeed, while it’s hard to measure the value of government officials’ travel with the return on investment, the county’s economic fortunes appear to be on the upswing. Evidence that backs the county’s biggest travel spender, Director of Economic Development Shannon Ogletree, includes Santa Rosa’s unemployment rate of 4.3 percent, hailed by District 3 Commissioner Don Salter recently as the 10th lowest in the state.

Ogletree’s efforts to recruit new employers raised his travel expenditures to $25,605.75 from February 2016 through January 2017, compared with $10,991 for the same period in 2015-2016. His spending included everything from a steak dinner with an unidentified new business prospect at Pensacola’s McGuires—with a tab of $201–to a manufacturing trade group convention in Las Vegas at $2,175.

Paradoxically, while Ogletree’s spending is on the increase, local government outlays for economic development nationally have declined of late as the recovery from the Great Recession of 2009-2010 continues. Such spending by the 50 states collectively fell slightly to $6.97 billion in 2016 from $7.05 billion the previous year, according to the non-profit Council for Community and Economic Research.

Still, no one is arguing that Santa Rosa shouldn’t try to increase its share of business growth. And while Ogletree can’t claim to have drawn major new manufacturers, it’s impossible to predict the future impact if he weren’t out beating the drum.

Besides, part of his job is to rally enthusiasm among employers already in the county to stay put when outsiders may try to woo them away. Thus the uncertain nature of his track record is similar to the legendary value in Hindu culture of a talisman meant to keep away rogue elephants: If they aren’t rampaging over you, who can say the charm isn’t working?

In October, Milton resident Wallace Mahut asked county commissioners to seek more details about Ogletree’s strategy to bring in high-paying jobs. She wondered why more businesses aren’t being attracted here to offset the ad valorem tax burden on homeowners.

“I agree. I wish we could bring in huge car manufacturers…,” Salter responded. While saluting Ogletree’s role in the low unemployment rate, he added, “Of course, we could always do better.”

Ogletree said, “I talk to manufacturers. We haven’t given up on that.”

Fishing for tourists

Second in county officials’ travel spending behind Ogletree was Julie Morgan, Santa Rosa’s director of tourism. Her travel receipts from February 2016 through last month totaled nearly the $18,000 she spent the year before. Some of those expenditures included tabs for other county officials who occasionally accompanied her, including Brandi Whitehurst, public information officer.

To be sure, Morgan’s expenses arguably pay dividends: Santa Rosa’s revenue from tourism bed taxes last year rose by 10 percent to $2.4 million. Like overall employment in Santa Rosa, tourism surged amid a statewide boom. Florida registered its sixth straight year of record tourism visitation in 2016: 112.8 million people, according to Tallahassee officials.

 

Morgan and her staff sought strategy tips and new contacts to cast the Santa Rosa tourism net wider: from attending the Georgia Bridal and Wedding Expo in Atlanta to the Destination Marketing Association International’s conference in Denver.

Ironically, while Morgan and her staff continued to travel far and wide to meet with tourism industry figures from around the nation, she and Ogletree pressed for fewer meetings back home with the volunteer Tourism Development Council. One reason they gave for wanting to cut back: the expense of monthly get-togethers for meetings of the council’s subcommittees in Milton and Navarre.

Some on the council of tourism industry figures saw the proposal for quarterly meetings as a move by Santa Rosa officialdom to reduce their autonomy. By a 6-1 vote in August, the panel, which is authorized by the Florida Legislature to keep an eye on bed tax spending, thwarted the reduced meeting schedule that Ogletree and Morgan sought to impose.

In September Morgan surprised some TDC members by recommending to county commissioners that they hire a new tourism promotional firm—St. Petersburg-based Paradise Advertising—to succeed Davis, South, Barnette and Patrick of Mobile, Ala. The council had supported DSBP, which had been Santa Rosa’s tourism ad firm since 2013 and guided it through a period of bed tax growth that preceded Morgan.

Commissioners’ confabs

 Although the county commissioners don’t travel nearly as much as Ogletree and Morgan, they collectively spent $8,388 during the 12-month period that ended in February, according to records provided by the county attorney’s office.

That’s about $1,000 more than commissioners spent in a similar period the previous year. The overall increase came despite the six-month vacancy in the District 1 seat caused by Jayer Williamson’s mid-year resignation to make his successful bid for election to the Florida House of Representatives. His successor, Sam Parker, didn’t take office until last November. Jayer Williamson’s travel receipts from January 2015 to March 2016 totaled $2,173.

 

The travel records for the most recent 12 months showed trips by only two commissioners, Rob Williamson and Bob Cole. County records don’t reflect taxpayer-paid travel by either District 3’s Don Salter or Lane Lynchard of District 5.

District 4’s Williamson accounted for more than half the total: $4,627—up by nearly one-third from the $3,570 he spent in the previous year.

The travel receipts of District 2’s Cole from May 2016 through February 2017 totaled $3,761, compared with just $233 he spent in about a year spanning parts of 2015 and 2016. Cole’s increased expenditures included various county government association conferences in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Cole and Williamson attended various events for the Florida Association of Counties and its national counterpart, among other gatherings. Their vouchers mention such workshop and seminar subjects as safety, growth management and ethics. But the travel records provided by the county are vague about the commissioners’ participation. For example, while they often submit pre-printed agendas of the gatherings, those documents don’t indicate which events they attended.

Hotel receipts are sometimes missing from the records provided to this newspaper. Those omissions underscore an inconsistency in the travel records, which are sometimes more specific about small expenditures than large ones.

For example, Rob Williamson’s records from a trip last November to a Florida Association of Counties conference in Orlando contain a receipt for $48.26 that he spent on an iPhone case at the Walmart on Navarre Parkway. It isn’t clear why the iPhone case was listed as a travel expense, since it was purchased on Nov. 11 and the county’s travel records indicate he traveled for the conference from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.

Although the iPhone case receipt from Walmart is included, and Williamson’s records for the trip provided by the county list total expenses as $498.16, the accompanying documents don’t contain a hotel bill. He didn’t return a phone message or email request for comment.

 

Have expense account, will travel

A sampling of some trips made by county officials in 2016 and early 2017:

Julie Morgan, Tourism Director:

January 2017$2,731 for Morgan and assistant Nicole Dees for Travel and Adventure trade show in Denver. Includes air fare and hotel rooms for two.

June 2016: $1,016 for Destination Marketing Association convention in Minneapolis.

March 2016: $349.24 for New Orleans Home and Garden Show. Includes $246.24 mileage for driving personal car at 54 cents a mile.

August 2016: $1,538.60 for Visit Florida Conference on Tourism in Orlando and meetings with new tourist advertising candidate companies.

Total from: February 2016 to February 2017: $17,605.15

 Shannon Ogletree, Director of Economic Development

 October 2016: $733.96 for Economix trade group meeting in Atlanta.

August 2016: Area travel in personal car to 22 meetings from Pensacola to Tallahassee. Met with engineers, consultants, Tourism Development Council and unidentified “Project Blue Marlin” new business prospect.

 

July 2016: $3,036 for Farmborough Air Show in London, England.

May 2016: $1,176 for International Conference of Shopping Centers meeting in Las Vegas.

Total from to February 2016 to January 2017: $25,605.75

Rob Williamson, County Commissioner for District 4

February 2017: $667.64 for trip that included a Florida Association of Counties meeting in Gainesville and a medical marijuana conference in Orlando.

November 2016: $498.16 for several meetings in Orlando including Florida Association of Counties and “Orange County officials.”

June 2016: $649.08 for Florida Association of Counties conference and workshop on economic development in Orlando.

Total from March 2016 to February 2017: $4,627.26

 

Bob Cole, County Commissioner for District 2

February 2017: $390.10 for National Association of Counties legislative conference in Washington, D.C.

July 2016: $1,445.20 for National Association of Counties annual conference on technology innovation and other subjects.

 

May 2016: $1,647.20 for National Association of Counties meeting with national and state “policymakers.”

Total from 2016 through February 2017: $3,761.15

As seen in the March 23 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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