Mayor: Money spent on travels has paid off for city

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Vicksburg Main Street directors discussed inviting Mayor Paul Winfield and City Attorney Lee Davis Thames Jr. to join several members on an upcoming trip to Oklahoma City for the National Main Street Conference, they decided they better pay the city officials’ way.

Directors of the downtown development organization on Tuesday approved spending $2,632 to cover registration fees, travel, lodging and meals for the mayor and city attorney during the four-day trip, set for early May. While not all members voted for the measure with enthusiasm, most were convinced the mayor’s depleted travel budget would otherwise lead him to opt out of the trip. Not Ronnie Bounds, though.

“The fact that the mayor can’t travel unless we pay is ludicrous,” said Bounds, a founding member of the 26-year-old Main Street program and a former longtime city planner. “If he wanted to go to a conference in Washington, D.C., he’d go. I have to abstain from this.”

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In his eight months since taking office, Winfield has traveled to Washington, D.C., on city business twice. In addition to attending training seminars and conferences in Jackson, Tunica and Biloxi, he’s also made trips to New York City, San Antonio and Houston at the city’s expense. On most trips he’s been accompanied by members of his staff, and high-ranking staff members also have taken out-of-state trips without the mayor, records provided after a written request show.

In total, Winfield and his staff have accumulated about $8,000 in travel expenses outside Vicksburg since he took office in July. Former Mayor Laurence Leyens and his staff spent a total of $3,500 on travel during his entire last year in office.

Winfield said any comparison to the former mayor’s travel expenses is misleading.

“The needs of our administrations are different, and you’re talking about somebody who is new in office compared to somebody who was in his eighth year in office during an election year,” Winfield said. “It’s not the most accurate comparison.” 

Winfield said he and Thames would have considered going to the National Main Street Conference even if they had to use city funds, and did not give the Main Street board an ultimatum to either pay their way or count them out.

“I mentioned that I’m trying to watch my travel… but they extended that offer,” he said. “I think that was done to encourage and foster a relationship, at least that’s what I felt.”  Main Street is funded by dues, by a special levy added to the bills of downtown area property owners and by city allocations, so while the Oklahoma trip would not have shown up in city records, the money will still in large measure come from taxpayers.

In February, Winfield announced all travel outside Vicksburg by city employees would be limited to training seminars. Other measures to rein in spending included limiting capital expenses and raises. Going forward, the mayor said he’ll judge each invitation he receives to attend outside events and travel if he feels it’s worthwhile.

“I’m invited to be somewhere in the country at all times, and I believe it’s our responsibility to promote and sell Vicksburg anywhere and everywhere we can,” he said. “But I don’t sign off on anything that I see as a waste, for myself or anyone else.”

There are direct benefits to going on the road, the mayor said. Winfield noted Vicksburg was selected in September as one of 18 cities in the nation to participate in The Cities of Service Coalition, requiring his traveling to New York to represent the city. Also, the urgency of finding funding for the closed Washington Street bridge at Clark Street required several trips to Washington and many more to Jackson.

“I believe the money we’ve spent on travel has been worthwhile, and I believe Vicksburg will reap the benefits,” Winfield said. “We’ve spent thousands of dollars traveling back and forth to Washington, but now we’re in a position to get a $4 million earmark to get the Washington Street bridge project going.”

Thursday, city officials voted to shift $4 million in an earlier bond issue to the rail overpass to get the project started. The money was to have gone to paving projects and completion of a sports complex on Fisher Ferry Road. If the earmark comes, those projects will be reinstated, officials said.

As a new face in politics, Winfield also has been to various Mississippi Municipal League conferences for training and networking seminars.

“MML is an invaluable resource,” he said. “Not only are you networking with other leaders around the state, but you’re there looking at the cutting edge things going on in other cities. You’re also continuing your education, and that’s how you avoid goof-ups.” 

The mayor has also put about 8,000 miles on the $24,000 Chevrolet Tahoe the city purchased for him six months ago, racking up roughly $1,300 in fuel costs. Comparatively, North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield has incurred $1,200 in fuel costs since July, and Leyens spent about $800 on gas for his city vehicle during his last year in office.

According to documents also received by an open records request, the mayor had new rims put onto his Tahoe one month after it was ordered, at a cost of $850. Winfield said he never specifically requested the rims — which he stressed are Chevrolet stock rims — but was informed the vehicle would look awkward without them.

“That vehicle has a police package, which includes raw, unfinished rims, with the nuts and bolts showing,” he explained. “As mayor — someone who is meeting with dignitaries and potential investors in our city every day — I thought it would be a justifiable expense to get the stock rims and not be driving around with unfinished black rims and the nuts and bolts exposed.”

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said questions like those about rims on the mayor’s vehicle are precisely why he gave up using a city vehicle altogether in 2008.

“You’re just under constant scrutiny about it all the time, and that’s the biggest reason I gave it up,” said Beauman, who now drives his personal vehicle to City Hall. “If you were on your way home from City Hall and you stopped at the grocery store, somebody wanted to know why you were there in a city vehicle. I just got tired of it.”

Beauman has also quit traveling to MML and other conferences inside and out of the state, but not because of the scrutiny.

“I did MML and some of that stuff the first year or two I was in office, but I found out pretty quickly after those first few years that I had gotten all I was going to get out of those trips,” he said.

Contact Steve Sanoski at