Investigation: Some community officials spend tax money fancy hotels, expensive dinners at Chicago conference

CHICAGO, (Illinois News Network) — Local taxpayers in municipalities across the state shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for elected officials to attend a three-day conference in downtown Chicago, a trip that in some cases included seafood dinners, valet parking and other perks with no clear benefit to local residents.

Bourbonnais officials billed taxpayers $15,233.32 to attend the Illinois Municipal League’s 2018 Annual Conference, which was held in the Hilton Chicago hotel and featured keynote speaker Bo Jackson, the football and baseball All-Star. Bourbonnais’ total included $8,000 for hotel rooms and $2,330 in food. Parking for the trip set local taxpayers back $1,430.

Residents of Sherman, a town 4,700 north of Springfield, picked up a $6,500 tab for the conference. In Channahon, the cost was $4,940.90. In Quincy, it was $4,715.10.

The Illinois News Network filed Freedom of Information Act requests with two dozen municipalities across the state to find out how much officials spent to go to the conference. Receipts showed that taxpayers got charged for everything from fancy dinners to room upgrades. Sherman leaders even had taxpayers foot the bill for their spouses to attend.

Registration for the conference was $310 a person for the full three days. Rooms at the Hilton Chicago cost up to $355 a night.

A review found that some conference attendees charged taxpayers for valet parking, at a rate of $52.50 a day. Others spent the allotted per diem on dinners, room service and other perks.

Some towns spent far less than others.

In fact, some reduced conference spending in 2018 by more than half from 2017. For example, in Quincy, officials spent $17,800 to attend the 2017 conference, according to an Illinois News Network investigation last year. In 2018, the city spent $4,715.10. The change was even more dramatic in Lake in the Hills, a far northwestern suburb of Chicago. In 2017, village officials there paid more than $11,000 for the conference. In 2018, the village’s total was $1,030.18.

Of the five towns that spent the most on the conference in INN’s review of 2017, four spent much less in 2018, according to public records obtained by INN. Only one, Bourbonnais, spent more in 2018.

Taxpayers in Bourbonnais paid $15,233.32 to send 11 people to the conference this year. That’s compared with total spending of $10,800 the year before.

Mayor Paul Schore said the Illinois Municipal League conference was “invaluable to small towns” like Bourbonnais.

“We’ve got no way to keep up with the changes in Springfield,” he said. “Everything changes, so we split up to go to different sessions.”

Schore, who declined his per diem for the trip, said the village has no control over where the conference is held or how much it costs to park downtown. He said in the past, village officials have considered carpooling or getting a bus to save on transportation and parking costs, but with different schedules, that wasn’t feasible.

The conference includes workshops, presentations and other training on a wide range of topics for municipal officials. This year’s conference included a panel discussion on government consolidation, a presentation on the changing retail landscape and training sessions on the state’s Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. While attending the conference costs money, doing so can result in savings for taxpayers, said Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole.

“These sessions are presented in person by experts with handouts and materials … and so it is a cost savings in and of itself because all the elected officials can come to one place and learn from the various leaders and industry experts at the conference,” he said.

Schore said there’s no substitute for going to the conference, talking with elected officials from other towns, and learning from what other towns are doing.

Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore said the conference was a valuable tool. He said the city’s conference spending fluctuated from year-to-year depending in part on the number of new City Council members. Quincy has 14 council members, two from each of the city’s seven wards. New council members are encouraged to attend the conference. New city department heads also are encouraged to attend. Moore said he learned about economic development tools at this year’s conference, including how different cities employ those tools and how to avoid cannibalizing existing businesses. Quincy, which significantly reduced its spending in 2018 from 2017, is a city of about 40,000 people on the Mississippi River in rural Adams County. The conference provides a chance for municipal officials to interact and learn from one another, he said.

“You really can’t get it anywhere else in our region,” Moore said. “In the suburbs, that might be different.”

Moore said the city has taken steps to reduce the cost of attending the conference, including a policy that requires attendees to eat at all conference-provided meals to cut down on outside dining costs. Other conference traditions were ditched to save money as well.

“We used to take everyone out to dinner,” he said. “That got removed.”

While some conference expenses appear to have benefits to elected officials and their constituents, other spending practices have raised questions.

For example, taxpayers in Sherman paid not only for elected officials to attend the conference, but also three of their spouses. The village paid $205 in registration fees for each spouse who attended. Asked about the value of bringing along a spouse, Sherman Village Administrator Michael Stratton, who brought his wife, said it was village policy.

“I have no response to you other than Village IML Conference attendance and reimbursement guidelines provide for spouse attendance,” Stratton wrote in an email.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said there should be some controls in place to ensure expenses benefit taxpayers.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking your spouse to an event,” Butler said. “I don’t have a problem with that. My wife joins me at things, but we make sure that is not paid for with government funds and I think that’s probably the No. 1 thing.”

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