Special Report: Traveling on Your Dime - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Special Report: Traveling on Your Dime

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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - In one of the worst budget years on record, the Memphis City Council recently voted to slash expenses for conference and seminar travel.  The cuts total $20,000, far less than what some council members have spent over the past few years.

During the last five years, Memphis City Council members have taken dozens of trips all over the country, to places like Reno, Orlando and New Orleans.

Each trip has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.  Recently, Action News 5 asked to see hundreds of documents, including travel expenses, registrations fees, and airfare and hotel expenses for seminars and conferences - all submitted by council members for refunds.

We received a stack of receipts totaling almost $71,000.  According to the Memphis City Attorney's office, it was all there - five years of record-keeping - but we discovered duplicate copies of some receipts, and others that were hard to add up.

One thing that was clear: two council members racked up more receipts than any of the others.

According to the records, City Council Chairman Myron Lowery and Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware both spent, combined, nearly $50,000 on trips to conferences and conventions.  That's more than 70 percent of all the Council's trip expenses that were reimbursed by the city.

Most of the trips were to National League of Cities and National Black Caucus conferences.  Lowery, Swearengen Ware, and Janis Fullilove attended an NLC conference earlier this year.

Lowery insists the 14 trips he's taken over the past five years have helped him become a more effective city leader.

"I'm on the board of the National League of Cities," he said. "I am also on the board of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, as is Barbara."

"We are able to bring ideas back that have been tried and true across the country," Swearengen Ware added.

But at what cost?  The 17 trips Swearengen Ware has taken over the past five years total almost $30,000, more than 41 percent of all the Council's travel expenses, according to these documents.

Lowery and Swearengen Ware are by far the biggest spenders because they take the most trips.  In fact, according to these documents, Swearengen Ware averages about three conferences a year.

"The Bible says you have some type of people comparing themselves by themselves is not wise. So you have to broaden your spectrum," Swearengen Ware said.

"One of the tremendous benefits is your able to get ideas from other elected officials," she added.

Lowery, who's set to become interim mayor of Memphis, considers the expenses minuscule, and in terms of the overall council travel budget, he says it's always lower than estimated each year.

"The City Council has never gone over its budget," he said. "We've always maintained the line, and I intend to continue that tradition. We will not go over our budget this year."

During the latest budget session, the City Council agreed to cut $20,000 in travel and seminar expenditures. And just this week, City Councilman Kemp Conrad introduced legislation for all city workers, requiring them to justify their reasons for traveling on the city's dime, and what benefit it'll have for the taxpayers.

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