The Colusa County Board of Supervisors questioned the need for two county employees to travel to New York expense for information they could likely get on the west coast.
A request for $6,500 for airfare, hotel, and meals, was pulled off the consent calendar, typically reserved for action deemed routine or non-controversial, by freshman Supervisor Merced Corona, at the board’s March 5 meeting.
The board didn’t say no to the Niagara Falls trip just yet, but decided to put their decision off until the next meeting, pending a request for additional information.
Out-of-state and out-of-country travel has come under fire by taxpayer groups and fiscally conservative lawmakers over the past 10 years – partly because technology makes the exchange of information (e.g., via video conferencing) readily available and partly because of budget cuts and ongoing unfunded pension liabilities in local, state, and federal government departments.
“My concern is that I know this is the second out-of-state training that has come up since I have sat on the board,” said Corona, who took office on Jan. 2.
Since 2014, the Board of Supervisors has approved a number of trips for Child Support staff alone to attend conferences outside California in cities and states all around the country, including Washington D.C. and Alaska, all of which were approved on the consent agenda with or without the cost noted.
“It just seems to me that it’s a lot of money that we are spending,” Corona said. “We’re spending public funds to send people all the way to New York when I think there is training spots in California.”
That the destinations of most taxpayer-funded junkets are so often near 5-star hotels in desirable vacation spots also wasn’t easily dismissed as coincidence.
“I know we allowed (a trip) to Vegas, but to me it’s not as far,” Corona said. “At least it’s a little closer to home than New York.”
The trip in question is the Eastern Regional Interstate Child Support Association conference, a five-day junket in May, just ahead of Niagara Falls’ peak tourist season.
“From my experience, these conferences will be on the east coast, and then the following year they will be on the west coast,” said Corona, who wanted to make sure the trip was not a waste of “the people’s money,” regardless of whether the funding came from the state, the federal government, or county coffers.
John Contreras, Child Support director, confirmed that all his department’s funding comes from the state or federal government, although he described his budget as “very slim.”
“We haven’t had an increase in over 10 years…but the money we got from the state for this travel is within our budget this year,” he said.
Contreras said he had no training or travel budget when the west coast training was held in October, and is uncertain if he will have any money in his budget when it is offered again at a closer location.
He said the ERICS Association is comprised of child support professionals at the federal, state, and local levels from the public and private sectors, and that attendance at the conference provides staff an opportunity to keep up on current and best practices, ensure effective implementation of laws, lobby changes to legislation and regulations, and improve communication and cooperation between states, among other things.
“Any information that helps bring them up to speed is helpful,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to make contacts. And it keeps up staff morale.” ■