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Op-Ed: 'Gravy train' conference is abuse of taxpayers

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Thursday, December 7, 2017  |  Commentary  |  By Dan McCaleb

Local Government (60)
Local tax dollars should not be spent on valet parking.

They should not be spent on lavish hotels and expensive meals.

And an annual training conference should not be treated like a three-day Super Bowl party funded by taxpayers.

Unfortunately, not all elected officials agree with that sentiment.

The Illinois News Network filed Freedom of Information Act requests with two dozen municipalities across the state seeking their expenses related to attendance at the Illinois Municipal League’s annual conference in Chicago. The FOIAs were sent to cities and villages ranging in population from more than 200,000 residents to fewer than 10,000.

Before I go into the details of the conference and its cost to taxpayers, let me tell you a little bit about the Illinois Municipal League.

First, it is funded by taxpayers. Cities and villages use tax dollars to pay IML annual dues (and registration fees for the conference, which I'll get into shortly). In addition to providing training and support to local governments, IML also lobbies state lawmakers on behalf of its members.

Oftentimes, the organization lobbies against taxpayers' best interests.

IML regularly opposes measures that seek to strengthen laws that make local governments more accountable to taxpayers, for example. In one recent instance, it lobbied hard against legislation to force governments to disclose the terms of severance agreements made with departing public employees, many of whom have received outrageous going-away presents because they have done something wrong.

As for IML's annual conference, it was held this year in late September at the Hilton Chicago, where a single overnight stay was nearly $300 with taxes included. Registration for the three-day event was $310 a person. Taxpayers from a city that sent just a single employee or elected official to the conference and paid for that person's overnight stays already are on the hook for $1,200 in registration and hotel costs alone.

INN's investigation found that attendees from Aurora, DeKalb and Bradley charged taxpayers $52.50 a day for valet parking. Others charged hundreds of dollars for meals and one, a plane ticket.

The Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald conducted a similar investigation focusing on suburban Chicago municipalities in its market and had similar findings, including one town – Addison – that charged taxpayers for alcoholic beverages.

Then there are cities like Quincy, population 40,500, which sent 13 officials to the conference at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $17,800. The city also is considering raising property taxes next year.

Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore didn't return INN's phone calls, but he defended the spending to local media after our stories published earlier this week.

"Our leadership team and our rank-and-file employees deserve to go to conferences to learn about up-to-date procedures and best practices," Moore told the Herald-Whig newspaper in Quincy. "Every time a City Council person goes, they feel more engaged in our city. They feel that they are part of something bigger, and they have a better understanding of what cities across Illinois are dealing with and that is worth it."

Taxpayer watchdog Adam Andrzejewski, chief executive officer at Openthebooks.com, sees it differently.

"This is not public service, this is abuse of public spending," Andrzejewski told INN. "Everybody says the gravy train needs to end, and what you’ve uncovered here is a real gravy train. This lavish travel, airplanes, fancy hotels, fine dining. This is not public service, it’s taxpayer abuse.”

I'm not saying a conference such as this has no merit. Certain training can help public officials be more efficient.

But the municipal league and many of its member cities need to practice more restraint.

Instead of a $300-a-night cost to hold the event at an upscale Chicago hotel at the far northeast corner of Illinois, move the conference to a less expensive venue in the middle of the state, Springfield perhaps, where travel costs also would be cheaper.

Communities that overspent also should look at a city like LaSalle, which sent four people but by policy didn't allow them to expense hotel stays or more than a single meal because it was within driving distance. Three of the four also carpooled, saving travel expense.

Illinois has almost 7,000 units of local government, more than any other U.S. state by far. Imagine the total amount of taxpayer dollars spent on school, township, parks and other conferences statewide.

Public officials need to remember that every dime they expense is coming from taxpayers, who have been battered and abused by Illinois' highest-in-the-nation combined local and state taxes for years.


Dan McCaleb is news director of Watchdog.org.