WILMINGTON — For the second time this week, commissioners tabled a vote Wednesday on a travel request from the Clinton County Auditor’s Office.
The request estimates expenses of $9,150 for lodging, meals, airfare, registration, ground transportation, mileage and parking to participate in a five-day conference in San Antonio, Texas. The event will pertain to the Munis accounting and financial software the county utilizes.
“I cannot sit here and honestly say that I think that $9,000 to attend a seminar for three individuals is a good use of taxpayer dollars,” said Clinton County Commissioner Brenda K. Woods.
This is Woods’ first month as a Clinton County commissioner, and she took the opportunity to elaborate on her budget philosophy.
She went on to say that some people will look at her position on the auditor’s office travel request “as micro-managing” a county department. But she said she anticipates in a couple years the county may have to consider re-instating a 0.5 percent sales tax that rolled off last year, and she wants to be able to say she did everything she could to cut costs prior to possible re-instatement of the tax.
Clinton County Auditor Terry Habermehl was present for the discussion, and responded that he understood. He added he would expect every other department’s travel requests would receive “the same scrutiny,” noting the commissioners agenda later included a travel request from the county engineer’s office with estimated expenses of $4,500.
A vote on the engineer’s travel request also was put on hold, with Clinton County Commissioner Kerry R. Steed saying further clarification was needed.
Woods said she plans to closely review expenditures in general, and not travel requests alone. She remarked she may be “the person everyone hates when it comes to the next budget cycle.”
She explained she had worked as a clerk in the commissioners office when the county government’s revenue situation was not as good as it has been in more recent times. In those earlier times, sufficient money reserves for cash flow and emergencies was built from closely watching dollars, she said.
“And if we don’t do that now, we’re going to be in that same predicament one day. We have to look out for the future of the county, and this [her scrutiny of travel requests] is where it starts for me,” said Woods.
Steed wondered whether there is some way “to economize and send two people” rather than three to the Texas conference. The way it was left is Habermehl can re-submit a travel request with changes for the commissioners’ consideration.
The fiscal talk and the mention of the lower county sales tax rate prompted Clinton County Commissioner Patrick Haley to share his thoughts about the prospect of a future re-instatement of the 0.5 percent additional sales tax.
“Chances are I will not vote to renew the sales tax. We need to get spending under control,” said Haley.
On a separate matter, Steed raised a topic concerning Clinton County Business and Economic Development Director Bret Dixon having “private [business] holdings” while also working in the public capacity. Steed said he wanted to be in a position to know that none of the work Dixon does on the public’s behalf “co-mingles” with any of Dixon’s private holdings.
After commissioners held an executive session with Dixon on Wednesday afternoon, Dixon told the News Journal that when he took the job as county economic development director several years ago, he disclosed and discussed his business holdings with commissioners.
He said that like President Donald Trump, he had business holdings when he came into his public office and expects to have them when he leaves, but that he’s been “very strict” in avoiding conflicts of interest.
In that regard, Dixon said a realtor handles on his behalf his holdings for any new business.
After the executive session, Steed stated in an afternoon text: “Above anything else, my job as a county commissioner is to make sure I protect the interests of the taxpayers. My questions this morning were not politically motivated or meant to put anyone in an uncomfortable position. They are merely from my desire to provide the taxpayers with the confidence that their tax dollars are being utilized and overseen in a manner consistent with what they have elected me to do.”
During the morning discussion, Haley said, “My main concern is jobs. I think he’s [Dixon has] done an outstanding job for the community.” Haley said Dixon has brought “a lot of jobs here” and works hard at it.
Later Haley said he wanted to be sure if there is criticism, that it not be politically driven.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.