City and county officials’ D.C. trip worth the cost

Published 12:30 am Sunday, May 18, 2014

A three-day trip to Washington, D.C. by Vicksburg and Warren County officials to visit the state’s congressional delegation cost taxpayers a total of $11,711.65, city and county records show.
Seventeen people from Vicksburg and Warren County flew to Washington late Sunday, Feb. 2 to visit with the state’s congressmen and senators to discuss the county’s needs and jockey for federal dollars with other communities in the state. Most in the group stayed through Wednesday, Feb. 5.
Two in the group, Warren County Board of Supervisors President Bill Lauderdale and Sheriff Martin Pace, represented the county, while eight city officials, City Attorney Nancy Thomas, Mayor George Flaggs Jr., City Clerk Walter Osborne, Flaggs assistant Brian Boykins, Community Development Director Victor Gray-Lewis, Police Chief Walter Armstrong, South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson and Vicksburg Main Street executive director Kim Hopkins represented the city.
Others on the trip were Wayne Mansfield, executive director of the Warren County Port Commission, Chad Shealy, superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District, John McKee, the county engineer, Annette Kirklin, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention Center, Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Thomas Kendall, a member of the Vicksburg Warren County Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
“I take full responsibility for taking eight people on the trip,” Flaggs said. “That was too many people, but this was my first time going to Washington and I felt we needed to make a good impression with the delegation.”
Flaggs said fewer people would go on next year’s trip, adding he wants to take different department heads to Washington. “This is an excellent opportunity for our people to experience meeting our delegation.”
The local contingent met with U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson, Steven Palazzo and Alan Nunnelee, and U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker. They also met with staffers for U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper.
Receipts and spending reports obtained from the city and chancery clerk’s offices under the Freedom of Information Act showed expenditures most would expect to find on such a trip — airfare, lodging and meals.
Shealy and the city officials received funds in advance to cover the trip. Lauderdale and Pace used credit cards — Lauderdale a personal Visa and the sheriff the county’s BancorpSouth business card. A $391.80 payment to BancorpSouth Credit Card Center appeared in county records for Pace’s bill, as did a reimbursement check to Lauderdale for $278.28.
Others on the trip either went at their own expense or had expenses covered by the respective organization or agency that employs them.
That list includes Stantec, which employs McKee. “I always pay my own way,” he said.
It also includes VenuWorks, which has the city contract to manage the convention center and paid expenses for Kirklin, the VCVB, which paid for Seratt’s costs, and the chamber, which financed Kendall’s way. Mansfield said his was paid using money in the port commission’s budget marked for travel and meals. The commission’s budget is funded by revenue from 17 leases and contracts with private entities, with the largest one being with Kinder Morgan to operate the port.
The port director said he paid about $320 in airfare and between $30 and $40 for meals during this year’s trip. The commission’s travel and meals budget was projected at $20,000 for fiscal 2014.
“You’ve got to stay in front of these elected officials’ faces because there’s a lot of other communities that want money,” Mansfield said, who cited funding for Vicksburg National Military Park and various infrastructure projects through the years as tangible reasons to keep the visits an annual thing. “The rate of return makes the money spent on travel pretty insignificant.”
Bess Averett, executive director of Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign, who had gone on previous trips when she directed the Southern Cultural Heritage Center, did not make this year’s junket because of illness, but said her expenses would have been covered by the organization.
According to city clerk’s office records, the total of advance money allotted to the city officials taking the trip totaled $10,255.64 to cover their expenses and spent $9,882.75.
Six of city officials received a travel allotment of $1,252.37. Gray-Lewis received a $1,389.78 advance, while Hopkins received a $1,351.64 advance. Gray-Lewis said his advance was high because he made his room reservation later and was quoted a higher price. He said he was able to get a lower-priced room after arriving in Washington.
City officials flew to Washington from Jackson on Air Wisconsin, a contract carrier for U.S. Airways, which cost each $264.80 round trip, plus luggage fees. Airline receipts for Lauderdale and Pace, both of who booked flights Jan. 3, showed their base cost to fly was $227.79, before fees.
The city/county delegation stayed at the Capitol Hill Hotel, which is within walking distance of the Capitol Building, at a rate of $227.85 a night — $199 plus $28.85 tax.
City officials and Shealy each received a $46 per diem for meals plus tips from their respective agencies. Six members of the city’s delegation reimbursed the city $372.89 in unused funds. Osborne received a $10 reimbursement from the city because he spent more than his allocation, and Thompson received a $4 check from the city.
Shealy’s receipts showed he spent $1,158.57, or $97.43 under the trip advance from the district.
Lauderdale turned in a travel voucher to the chancery clerk’s office showing a $52 fee to park at Jackson-Evers International Airport and $168 in non-taxable meals. No receipts accompanied the voucher.
“I don’t really remember what I ate, but it was the first time I’d gone in 10 to 12 years,” Lauderdale said this past week. “I think I just had a little old steak sandwich, and we ate at the train station twice.”
Pace’s meal receipts totaled $83.70 over four days. They were from Union Station (the train station), Thunder Grill, Sonoma Restaurant and Cannon Café.
Among the individual expenses, Flaggs’ report showed a $30.78 taxi charge, and Hopkins spent $22 on transportation in Washington — an $8 cab fare and $14 for taking the Washington Metro system. Hopkins also reported luggage fees totaling $120 for four pieces of luggage. Osborne and Boykins also reported $120 luggage fees. Willis Thompson had $124 for luggage. Those fees for Pace and Lauderdale were $27 and $50, respectively.
Lauderdale said he took note of three letters to the editor printed in The Vicksburg Post in the weeks following the trip that questioned the effort’s costs and worth.
“I don’t remember them calling the supervisors or anything first,” he said. “Some people just like to get in the headlines.”

Staff writers Danny Barrett Jr. and Matt Stuart also contributed to this report.

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About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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