Why four tiny suburbs spent thousands at Chicago conference
The $6,897 spent by Round Lake Heights to send seven elected officials to the annual Illinois Municipal League conference in downtown Chicago this September is equal to nearly 5 percent of what the tiny suburb receives from property taxes.
That's even after Mayor Terry Lumpkins shaved about $1,000 off the bill by buying one-day passes for everyone attending the conference instead of the more expensive three-day passes.
"We went to all three days of the conference," Lumpkins said. "I was just being cost-conscious because they never check the badges."
A growing number of towns don't even send people to the event, with officials saying they can't justify the cost.
But then there's the "Round Lake Area." The four suburbs that make up the region were responsible for nearly 30 percent -- $35,610.78 -- of the $119,431.64 spent by 50 suburbs at the conference this year, according to a Daily Herald analysis of financial records received through public records requests.
Round Lake Beach spent the most of any suburb, with $12,856.16 in taxpayer-funded expenses for seven elected officials and one member of the village staff. Round Lake officials sent five elected officials and one staff member at a total cost of $9,170.86. Round Lake Park sent four elected officials whose total bill tallied $6,686.76.
That's a far cry from 45 other suburbs that spent nothing and sent no one to the conference.
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While municipal leaders from suburbs that didn't send anyone to the conference offered myriad reasons for staying home, it's clear the optics of the event don't sit well with some.
"Going to those seminars and spending all that money, I don't get it," said Carol Stream Village President Frank Saverino. "I got a thing about going someplace and not coming back with something we can use. I just don't think it's useful for our board to all go down there like that."
Saverino said members of the village's professional staff attend conferences dedicated to their specific fields instead, bringing back information and updates on best practices to inform the board ahead of any decisions that need to be made.
But Lumpkins said he and the board are Round Lake Heights' staff. The town has only two working for the village who aren't elected, he said.
"We don't get as much information from the professional organizations because we don't have the manpower," Lumpkins said. "Our municipality has zero debt. The reason we have zero debt is because of the things we've learned at these conferences."
Some of the seminars offered were: "Ctrl, Alt, Del: Rebooting Your Communications," "Troublesome Employees" and "The Right Way to Set Up Credit Card Payment." None of the topic tracks of the conference seminars were directly aimed at elected officials; they were directed at legal, economic development, public works and other municipal professional staffs.
Lumpkins noted that while the village spent $5,742 on hotel rooms and $1,155 on conference registration fees, the officials didn't charge taxpayers for food or transportation.
Taxpayers in Round Lake and Round Lake Park were charged a combined $2,886.56 for food and transportation, including $427 spent by Round Lake Park on a bus to shuttle the conference attendees and spouses to and from the city.
Meanwhile, the seven Round Lake Beach elected officials received checks for $336.64 each to cover daily food and transit expenses at a total cost of $2,356.48 to taxpayers there. None of the Round Lake Beach officials were required to submit receipts for their per diem expenses, village officials said.
Most towns require receipts and invoices for spending or reimbursement by staff members or elected officials.
"Sadly we've learned our lessons to stay on top of spending by public officials and requiring receipts is critical," said Bill Bergman, director of research at Truth in Accounting, a nonprofit government finance research organization based in Chicago. "There should be an audit trail for all the spending."
Round Lake Beach Mayor Rich Hill said the costs are pretty standard for the village that earmarked $23,900 for training and travel costs for elected officials this year, according to the village's financial reports.
"It's a great opportunity to learn and you could save several hundred thousand dollars by the few thousand you spend to learn things at the conference," Hill said.
Officials from Round Lake Park did not return a request for comment.
Round Lake Mayor Dan MacGillis called the costs the village incurred "ridiculously" expensive, but he said the training and education trustees received are invaluable.
However, any additional training is voluntary. In Illinois, the only required training for elected village board trustees or city council members is an online course offered by the attorney general's office, and not through the IML or available at the conference.
While organizers have scaled back the conference from a four-day event in recent years to just three, more suburbs are also scaling back spending or just not sending anyone at all.
In 2003, West Chicago officials raised taxpayer ire when they spent $12,853.48 on the conference for nine elected officials. In the aftermath, the city council gutted its training budget to less than a third of what it spent that year. No one from the city attended the conference this year.
"No one's gone in a very long time," said City Manager Michael Guttman. "They certainly can't afford to go with what's available in the budget."
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