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Leaders say travel costs _ and pays off

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The tab for trips by Pinellas commissioners in the last year and a half is $57,656, but they say it helps bring home the bacon.

During the past 18 months, Pinellas County commissioners have logged nearly 80,000 miles across 11 states and four foreign countries in an effort to bring tourism, trade, technology and government money back home.

The cost to taxpayers for all that travel: $57,656. But commissioners say the return on that investment is much larger.

Trips to Tallahassee and the nation's capital can result in more money for road improvements. Attending tourism conferences in Berlin and London helps recruit foreign visitors. And travels to South Africa and Mexico have opened trade opportunities.

The county's most frequent flier, Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who spent $22,400 on trips in the past 18 months, says the travel gets results.

"I work very, very hard. Anything I do outside this county is strictly for the benefit of the people who elected me," said Todd. "I believe I've brought home the bacon many times."

Overseas travel also has become a part of their job, commissioners say.

Commission Chairman Calvin Harris got back last month from a trip to South Africa, where he worked to create business opportunities for Pinellas companies.

Commissioner Bob Stewart went to Berlin, London and Mexico City last year to promote trade and tourism.

"I think the idea of commissioners traveling, within reason, makes a lot of sense," Stewart said. "We're in a competitive business for dollars _ state dollars and federal dollars. It does pay off to be eyeball to eyeball with the people making the decisions."

Commissioners make their own travel decisions, as opposed to county employees who, typically, must get the permission of a department head or the county administrator. Commissioners are required to turn in receipts for trips, but the county will not pay for extras like room service, telephone calls and expensive meals.

They say their face-to-face negotiations pay off.

For instance, Commissioner Karen Seel traveled to Washington, D.C., to pester Congress for U.S. 19 money. Her trips cost the county about $2,500.

In October, U.S. Rep C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, and U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, secured $50-million for improvements to the highway.

"I think it did help, Karen coming up when she did to explain the situation in person," said Christy Stefadouros, Bilirakis' press secretary. "It shows the people she's meeting with that maybe they should take a hard look."

As commission chairman last year, Stewart traveled to Mexico City to encourage businesses to trade with companies in Pinellas. The effort, which included a reciprocal visit by Mexican officials and the opening of a Pinellas County Economic Development office in Mexico City, has resulted in more than $30-million in new sales for the local companies involved.

Harris, this year's chairman, got back from his trade mission to South Africa, which cost $3,000, then within days repacked his bags and jetted to Berlin for the International Tourism Borse, one of the world's largest tourism and trade exhibitions. Stewart had gone the previous year. The temperature never rose above 29 degrees. It snowed two of the six days Harris was there.

All the while, he and officials with the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau hawked Pinellas County's sun and surf. But they had competition from Portugal, Spain, Cuba and other locales offering beach resorts.

"We take the whole tourism travel thing for granted, and then you go there and there's these countries you've never heard of with huge delegations fighting for our people," Harris said. "Europeans just look for a nice beach and warm water."

Commissioners say the county's European campaign appears to be paying off. In 1999, for the first time, the number of tourists to Pinellas in spring and summer surpassed the number of winter visitors. And Europeans are said to be driving tourism year-round.

"It is a worthwhile investment on the part of the county and its tourist industry to have the chief local officials there to tout our destination," Stewart said. "I think the proof of that is in the statistics."

Todd's $22,400 travel expense during the past 18 months included 14 trips outside Florida and one outside the country.

Taxpayers have spent $22,400 to send Todd to conferences in Orlando, Tallahassee, Chicago, Denver, Albuquerque, N.M.; Alexandria, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Jose, Calif.; Sun Valley, Idaho; Seattle, Wash.; Washington, D.C.; and Isla Mujeres, Mexico, an island just east of Cancun.

Todd offers several examples of what Pinellas has gained from her travels. She learned of an online auctioning service the county could use to sell its old equipment.One was launched a few months ago as a pilot project.

Todd also served as president of the National Association of Counties, or NACO, in 1993, a position that raised Pinellas County's profile and afforded her easier access to political heavies (she talked international trade with President Clinton).

Her continued involvement with the organization also demands quite a bit of traveling _ six different trips in the past nine months. But Pinellas benefits from her networking, Todd said.

For instance, other members of NACO mentioned that their counties had worked with private businesses to finance environmental projects. Todd came home and, with help from Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers, launched the non-profit Pinellas County Environmental Foundation, which uses federal grants and donations from corporations to complete local conservation projects _ without local taxpayer dollars.

She also founded NACO's Financial Services Center in Washington, which lets counties like Pinellas pool their buying power to save millions of dollars.

She is the only Florida representative on NACO's election reform task force, which is considering sweeping changes to voter systems.

"My involvement in any of this has always resulted 100,000 times in benefits to this county," Todd said. "If I have an opportunity to do something that will bring more to this county _ more knowledge, more prestige, more information or more dollars _ that's the basis of any decision I make."

"These are the responsibilities expected of the chairman and of each of the commissioners," she said. "It's not like everybody decides they just want to take off."

Travel expenses are not likely to decrease, commissioners say, now that the board has expanded to seven members and competition has increased for state and federal money. Traveling to Tallahassee during the current legislative session will be especially important, Harris said.

"We have got to go to Tallahassee. This is going to be a critical year," he said. "The more they talk about no money, the more critical it is that we protect Pinellas' money."

Commissioners on the go

During the last 18 months, Pinellas County commissioners have logged 27,000 miles on the ground and nearly another 52,000 in the air traveling to conferences, meeting with lawmakers and constituents and generally trying to bring home the bacon. The price of all that globetrotting: almost $58,000. Commissioners say the return on that investment, especially in the form of money for local projects, far exceeds the expense.

Commissioners Air miles Ground miles Total miles Cost

Barbara Todd 18318.00 602.00. 18920.00 $22,412.77

Calvin Harris 14894.00 8083.30 22977.00 11,752.23

Bob Stewart 11598.00 6255.00 17853.00 8,365.21

Karen Seel 3172.00 5344.00 8516.00 7,147.30

Sallie Parks 3312.00 5774.00 9086.00 6,201.05

John Morroni 204.00 394.60 598.60 835.26

Susan Latvala 204.00 360.40 564.40 630.42

Kevin Welch 0.00 296.20 296.20 311.94

Totals 51702.00 27109.50 78811.50 $57,656.18

Travel budget year 1999-2000 and the first six months of 2000-01

+Parks left the commission in November 2000