Winston-Salem, N.C. - Cities in the Triad typically have budgets to cover the cost of sending council members to conferences and meetings about city government. The idea is to turn those trips and meetings into projects or ideas that benefit the community.
However, how much is too much? Winston-Salem has spent about $80,000 on travel expenses over the past three years. To put things into perspective, during that same time period, Greensboro's city council spent about $33,000 on travel.
"It returns dollars to our city. Sometimes you have to spend a little money to make money. This is a case of a good return on investment," Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said. "I think the city has been very tight in its travel. We have cut back our travel. I know I have, personally. At one time, I was doing two national trips a year. I've cut back to one. One, which, I think is an essential trip to stay in touch with our legislative delegation."
Every city council member can spend up to $4,975 on travel every year. Some council members spend all of that money. Others spend more than that amount, and essentially borrow money from other council members' allocations.
Council members James Taylor, Derwin Montgomery and Dan Besse spent the most money traveling over the past three years. How do they justify the travel expenses?
"When I'm there, I'm Tweeting, I'm Facebooking, I'm Instagraming what's happening, what's going on. I think people need to hear, need to know what we're going up there for. These are not vacations. These are working trips," Montgomery said. "I think we have to do a better public relations job on how we convey the message of what we're doing and what the impact is to citizens. If they don't understand, they will be upset. They will be angry. They will be mad."
Council member Besse added, "They are absolutely more than paying for themselves. If they weren't, I wouldn't be going. I've been involved in public policy advocacy for more than 30 years. I know that you don't get things done if you don't go to where you need to go."
Besse said that cutting out all travel is not the answer. He argues the travel council members go on brings millions of dollars back to the city. For example, Besse cites an upcoming project near the Cloverdale Shopping Center. This summer, federal dollars will help cover the cost of adding a sidewalk and re-doing an intersection to make the area safer and more pedestrian friendly. Besse told WFMY News 2, travel to speak to key lawmakers and decision makers helped secure the funding for that particular project.