Sometimes getting taxpayer money takes spending taxpayer money.

By EMILY ANDERSON
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Sometimes getting taxpayer money takes spending taxpayer money.

Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca traveled to Denver recently with that premise in mind. He and a colleague rented a car and drove to a Department of

Transportation meeting to convince those in attendance that Mesa County deserves $20 million in stimulus funds for local highway construction.

“The committee selected our proposal as one of the four or five for the state. It was well worth it for us to spend time and resources to keep a $20 million proposal moving,” Acquafresca said.

Hotels, meals, airfare and registration costs for local board members to attend meetings at home and away are paid for with tax money. While some members take advantage of each category, others try their best to stay close to home and be frugal.

Grand Junction City Councilman Gregg Palmer said he doesn’t like to spend much city money. In the past year, he’s only used the city purchasing card for a handful of lunches with city and county personnel and collected the standard $60 a month in mileage each council member is paid. Each council member is also paid $540 a month, except for the mayor, who gets $812 a month.

“I’m pretty frugal. If I’m spending other people’s money, I’m pretty cautious,” Palmer said.

From July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009, City Council members spent $22,014.93 on travel, registration, meals and mileage. Mayor Bruce Hill chalked up the highest amount on the city purchasing card — $7,106.57 — in the past year, plus the standard monthly mileage amount.

Hill attended meetings in seven states over the past year. He said he’s brought plenty of advice back to Grand Junction from National League of Cities and Colorado Municipal League meetings. He even brought people back last year, when he invited National League of Cities members to Grand Junction.

“For me it’s extremely helpful because you hear useful information and new ideas,” Hill said.

Councilwoman Bonnie Beckstein said the cheapest amenities are not always selected.

But every spending decision is a conscious one, she said.

“Everything is weighed: what we eat, the hotels we stay at. We want to make sure they’re nice and safe, but we’re not there for the hotels. We’re there for the conference,” she said.

Sometimes it takes a conference to be a better board member, District 51 School Board member Ron Rowley said. The worst thing a school board can do, he said, is assume a school district is doing all the right things without going to helpful workshops to make sure the right methods are being utilized.

School Board President Leslie Kiesler agreed.

“It’s really integral we keep up on best practices for our students,” Kiesler said.

School board members are not paid for their duties, but spent $31,626.29 between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, learning best practices at conferences. That figure includes registration, travel and mileage reimbursements.

Learning how much travel is necessary for a board member takes some time, according to Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis. Meis said he paid for numerous activities out of pocket his first two years on the job while he learned which conferences are best to attend in person, which can be missed and which ones require only a teleconference presence.

Meis said events such as the National Association of Counties annual meeting in Washington, D.C., help commissioners from across the country meet with federal legislators all in one place.

“I try to kill multiple birds with one stone during that trip,” he said.

Meis is in the middle slot for spending among the commissioners, who make $72,000 a year in salary. Acquafresca spent $2,208.29 during the last fiscal year. Meis spent $3,991.32. Commissioner Janet Rowland, who belongs to two committees and a subcommittee in Denver, spent $6,376.85.

Rowland said having a commissioner on state boards and attending national meetings and gatherings can help change legislation that affects the county. The National Association of Counties, for example, has “huge lobbying power,” she said.

The Mesa County Commission also spent $5,964 on registrations and seminars. Half of those events occurred in Mesa County.

Acquafresca said he doesn’t travel out of state much, and he saves money by knowing not every meeting is an integral one. Acquafresca said he turns down meeting invitations constantly. Two of the three commissioners did not attend the National Association of Counties summer conference this year “because of budget constraints.”

Mesa State College’s 11-member, all-volunteer board of trustees meets in Grand Junction and at least once a year in Denver. With members living in both places, flying back and forth and putting trustees in hotel rooms cost the college $12,636.29 last school year. Sending trustees to Denver for the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee meetings cost $712.76.

Having members from all over the state is a common practice for boards at Colorado colleges. There are ways to cut costs with a state-run institution’s board, college spokeswoman Dana Nunn said.

“Sometimes we can get a state plane,” she said.


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