For most College of Lake County constituents, $300-a-night hotel rooms, $128 late-night snacks at a Chicago hotel and flying the 230 miles to Springfield rather than driving would qualify as living large. Fine, if you can afford it. Not so fine if the taxpayers are covering the costs of trips that many of them wouldn't dream of taking themselves.
Those were some of the items among nearly $110,000 in spending on travel, lodging and food by the college board of trustees over the past two years, Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog columnist Jake Griffin reported Wednesday.
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Of that amount, $40,405 was spent on hotels from Boston to Schaumburg, and many other places around the country.
The elected board members, to their credit, tightened spending policies recently, said Chairman Amanda Howland, explaining she initially balked at Trustee Rich Anderson's late-night appetizers receipt from June 2013 at the Coq d'Or at Chicago's Drake Hotel, but authorized reimbursement with the understanding the board would take a closer look at its spending policies.
It did, and agreed to a few new rules, including itemized receipts for spending over $15 and no coverage for expenses that fall outside of the dates of conferences or events. You'd think those limits would have gone without saying, but this is a board that reimbursed Trustee Barb Oilschlager $1,198 to drive to Boston for a conference rather than fly at a much lower cost.
While the new rules are necessary, they don't go far enough. The board needs to take a closer look at the amount spent on food and travel -- $27,374 in two years for Oilschlager, $21,134 for Anderson, with others not far behind.
Howland says Oilschlager's road trip happened before she was chairman and she would not have signed off. Still, Howland was reimbursed $16,737 for travel over the past two years.
In these times of steeply growing costs for taxpayers and college students, the college trustees -- like governing boards everywhere -- need to set an example of frugality with public funds.
Caps on expenditures and limits on frequency of trips to conferences would be a good start. We'd like itemized receipts on every reimbursed expense, not just those over $15. That's a necessary part of monitoring the restrictions against alcohol and spouse costs, and any arbitrary limit seems an invitation to manipulate costs.
Our finding on the CLC board is the latest evidence that governing boards around the suburbs need to scrutinize spending. College trustees are unpaid and most other civic or school board members work for little or no pay. They shouldn't have to shoulder expenses required for them to do their jobs well. But they also shouldn't see an elected position as the ticket to continuous free trips.
After all, that $110,000 could have been spent on many other great things. A year's full-time tuition for 30 deserving students, for example.
Making that comparison for every board expense just might make cost containment a little easier for trustees -- and taxpayers -- to swallow.