West St. Paul city manager, mayor butt heads on cost of staff travel budget

As cities look to cut back on planned expenditures while working to finalize tax levies for the upcoming year, West St. Paul city manager Matt Fulton says one budget he thinks should not be trimmed is the one dedicated to the travel and training of city staff members.

Fulton said he values trainings and conferences, and the history of said budget reflects that.

Coming from the West St. Paul general fund, in 2011 the city had a total travel budget of $42,945.10 and in 2012 it was $36,930.18, according to finance director Joan Carlson. When Fulton became city manager in 2013, that budget rose quickly. This year it was $75,730, and the proposed travel budget for 2016 is down slightly to $73,090.

Another way to put it in perspective is to look at the travel and training budget of South St. Paul, a city with a slightly larger population of 20,436 compared to West St. Paul's 19,756, according to the 2013 census. 

South St. Paul finance director Michelle Pietrick said the city's 2015 budget for travel and training was $38,583.

However, in an interview last week, Fulton said making such inter-city comparisons is difficult, because it boils down to the priorities of respective cities.

"Every community is different," Fulton said. "Every community thinks differently about how they operate and this is just the perspective I bring." 

Investing in staff

Fulton said the budget for himself, the city clerk, the social media staff member and the human resources person is lumped into a single budget, which, according to Carlson, totaled $18,730 in 2015.

"It is important to point out that only $11,144 of this budget has been spent to date in 2015, and I do not expect any additional conferences to be attended for the balance of the year," Fulton said. "It is also important to point out that this budget account provides resources for certain organizational training and mileage reimbursement for travel to metro area meetings and training sessions. That amount is around $1,250," he added.

But in a separate interview, West St. Paul Mayor David Meisinger did not appear to place as much value on professional development conferences as Fulton. However, the mayor concedes that Fulton's contract contains wording that allows him to attend two conferences per year, though Fulton has the authority to budget for more.

"Training is an important thing in any operational budget," Fulton counters. "And it's typically the first thing people try to get rid of, but when times get tough, that's when you need to have your skill set the sharpest."

This year Fulton attended five conferences, three of which were out of state, including the International City/County Manager's Conference in Seattle, and two Alliance for Innovation conferences, one in Phoenix, and the other in Milwaukee. According to its website, the Alliance for Innovation seeks to "transform government" and "inspire innovation to advance communities."

To hold membership with the Alliance for Innovation, which West St. Paul does, the fee exceeds $1,000 per year, but depends upon population.

How it helps

"Training is a really important asset for communities to pay attention to particularly when resources are tight," Fulton said.

"It's really important, at least in my professional opinion, to make sure your employees are sharp and able to think differently and that they're exposed to different practices and things that are going on around the world, and I do mean world."

Fulton said the experience West St. Paul staff have had at trainings have led the city to identify new electronic hardware and software to help the city become more efficient and transparent, which he said has led to the effort to create "more of a 24-hour City Hall, where residents and businesses can conduct city business more easily outside of normal business hours," Fulton added.

"Collaborative partnerships are also areas that are normally included in conference trainings," he said. "Based, in part, of the broader perspective I have gained through understanding the national trends in local governance, I have arranged for meeting with South St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, and Mendota Heights to start exploring additional ways we can work together."

Fulton gave multiple examples of how he and certain staff members have returned from conferences and trainings inspired and with ideas to focus on.

Alternative perspective

But the mayor bristles at the cost of conferences and trainings -- and the additional charges for those that are out-of-state, including meals, airfare, lodging, rentals, so on.

"It's excessive," Meisinger said. "If I have to, I will veto those travel expenses for the upcoming budget."

He said that anything beyond a conference or two a year, he is "opposed to."

According to Meisinger, with the budget increases for the Robert Street construction and rehabilitation, the city should be spending less on conferences, which he calls "opportunities for self-promotion."

"People go out to these trainings and conferences trying to make connections, looking for bigger, better jobs," he said. "It's networking for employment."

Though Meisinger said not all of these trainings are that way and many have potential to be educational, he said, "it's not the time for traveling."

One group he especially doesn't think should be attending conferences out of state is city council members.

"I'm against city council members traveling," Meisinger said. "I'm definitely the minority on that. But, not a single person ran for city council saying 'Please elect me because I'm the best person for the job, but I'm going to then have to use your money to go educate myself so that I can make myself even better.'"

In 2011 the mayor and city council spent $434.25 for travel and conferences. In 2012 they didn't spend anything on travel. In 2013 it jumped up to $8,023.89 and grew to $12,000 in 2015.

"City council members should not be spending taxpayer dollars to travel around the country," Meisinger asserted. "But it continues to happen on a regular basis."

Fulton, however, disagrees.

"There was never any money budgeted for the council to attend any type of conference," he said. "When I arrived I made sure that we included money that would provide an opportunity for the council to attend conferences."

He added, "It's about how we can do a better job in delivering services. If you don't do that, you're stuck with whatever your perspective is locally, and you have a difficult time really reacting to the changing nature of what communities do."

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at twitter.com/JPooleNews.

 

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