It's Your Money: City of Columbia Travel and Conferences

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COLUMBIA - In 2012, the City of Columbia spent $34,058.78 on airfare, car rentals, and shuttles looking for the next good idea. City employees traveled to more than 15 cities outside the state including Seattle, Baltimore, San Diego, Orlando, and Dallas.

The total for conference and training fees last year added up to more than $83.336.60, and lodging cost the city $77,726.56. While at those conferences, employees rang up another $26,090.34 in miscellaneous costs.

All together, we found $221,212.28 worth of travel, lodging, and conference expenses.

"I know how expensive conferences can be, but I also know how important they are for professional development for your employees, so I think that number is completely acceptable," Kristen Bagwill, a Columbia taxpayer, said.

Lisa Hine, another Columbia taxpayer, disagreed saying, "I think that might need to be looked at. I work for the school district, and I don't get my conferences paid for."

Others, like Liz Tummons, wonder if technology could help cut down on costs.

"I attend an annual conference every year that really helps me out as a professional, so I understand the need for conferences, but I think there's been a lot more done as far as video conferencing, Internet conferencing, things like that. I think that's an area where you could really look at spending and possibly find some things to eliminate," Tummons said.

City Manager Mike Matthes said instructors can't teach some things online, like law enforcement training.

"The FBI does a great job in the East Coast with training schools. What's a great new tactic for SWAT, and so we like to send folks to that because we want to stay current," Matthes said.

Other conference fees pay for CPA continuing education hours and other certifications employees need, and Matthes said some more than pay for themselves when employees bring back new ideas like the city-issued trash and blue recycling bags found at local stores.

"It used to be we would have a crew of folks that would drive around town, and almost like delivering a paper, throw them in your yard. His suggestion was, you know instead of that crew, let's just mail them a voucher and you can pick it up at the grocery store when you're there," Matthes said.

Matthes claims that idea saves the city about $250,000 each year, which is more than the city spent on conferences in 2012.