Suburban managers attend conference on the cheap
Some suburban officials show it can be done to save taxpayers money
Editor's note: Story updated May 31 to reflect lower expenses incurred by the village of Bensenville.
Rather than fly to Boston for a prestigious four-day conference, Lisle Village Manager Gerald Sprecher saved money and miles by going virtually.
It cost $299 for him to attend the 2013 International City/County Management Association conference. According to a Daily Herald analysis, Sprecher saved the most money out of the roughly two dozen governments that sent people to the gathering, the premier event for anyone in municipal and county management.
At the other end of the spectrum, the city of Elgin spent nearly $7,100 for two people to attend.
"Certainly the motivation when I first did it was financial," said Sprecher, who has attended virtually for three years. "When the recession hit several years ago, there was a virtual prohibition on going to conferences, particularly out of state."
Sprecher was one of five people from Illinois who attended the 2013 conference by computer, said Dawn Peters, executive director of the Illinois City/County Management Association.
The group started offering virtual attendance about a half dozen years ago, as many members couldn't pay the full freight of the conference, which involves registration fees, transportation, hotel stays and meals, said Michelle Frisby, an ICMA spokeswoman.
"We wanted to give folks a (low)-cost option," Frisby said. "And some folks just can't get away from the office at that time."
There were several other ways, though, that local officials saved the taxpayers money.
• Fox Lake Associate Village Manager Tara Semenchuk paid for her own transportation and meals. She also won a scholarship that covered her registration and a portion of her travel expenses.
• Villa Park Village Manager Rich Keehner won a web promotion that paid for his registration.
• Geneva City Administrator Mary McKittrick paid for her meals and transportation costs.
What was spent
The Daily Herald submitted public records requests to 80 towns and five counties seeking all expenses related to the last year's conference, held Sept. 22-25 in Boston.
The documents showed officials from 24 towns and Lake County attended in person; Sprecher was the only one who went virtually. Eight towns and Lake County sent two people, while the others sent just one representative.
Conference costs among the different entities fluctuated. For example, Schaumburg taxpayers paid nearly $4,000 to send two people to the conference, while Carpentersville spent about $2,500 and Bensenville spent $2,185 to send their village managers. Wheaton and Buffalo Grove spent slightly less than that -- about $1,900 -- to send one person each to the conference.
How they saved
Geneva's McKittrick and the intern who accompanied her paid their own airfare and ground transportation costs as well as their own meal costs, records show.
After the recession hit several years ago, Geneva cut its budget and asked its staff to forgo conference attendance, McKittrick said.
But when the economy improved, McKittrick allowed professional development for the staff on a limited basis, as it "is crucial in maintaining essential skills and implementing best practices," she said via email.
With that in mind, covering some of her own expenses was "the right thing to do," McKittrick said. Costs between her and the intern totaled $2,111.34, which comprised hotel expenses and McKittrick's registration fee.
"I thought that it was in the best interest of the city that I share in the expenses for attending the ICMA conference, as well as setting a good example for our employees," she said.
McKittrick also compiled a report documenting what she learned at the conference, a city requirement.
Fox Lake, meanwhile, spent $825.36 to send Semenchuk to the conference.
She won a scholarship from the state and national groups that paid her $635 base registration fee and awarded her a travel stipend of the same amount.
On top of that, she paid for other transportation costs and meals.
"I just decided to absorb that cost myself; there was no particular reason," Semenchuk said. "I just didn't feel the need to send in the receipts."
She wasn't the only one who didn't have to pay the base registration fee.
After completing an online survey on ICMA's website, Villa Park's Keehner won a promotion that waived his registration fee.
"It paid to complete the survey on time," Keehner said.
Wheeling City Manager Jon Sfondilis and Assistant City Manager Michael Crotty saved more than $1,000 by sharing a room at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers.
Ray Keller, village administrator of Gilberts, paid for his own meals.
Brian Costin, director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending, praised the cost-cutting moves but said the entities should also make sure they got something out of going.
"Almost all communities are going through some sort of budget crunch now, and every dollar is precious," Costin said. "You want to be able to bring back knowledge to our communities or to your county that you can share with the other employees who were not at the conference. If you don't bring anything back to that community, the money's wasted."