By Michael Howell
Disturbed by a political advertisement placed by his opposition in the upcoming election for County Commissioner District 2 that “appears like a news article,” County Commissioner Greg Chilcott has asked the Bitterroot Star to “print the facts.” Chilcott claims that the ad, placed by Dave Smith for County Commissioner, is false and misleading.
“The implications are as false as the numbers in the ad,” said Chilcott.
Chilcott said that he did contact the Commissioner of Political Practices office to register a complaint. But he also noted that the office was traditionally ineffective because investigations generally took as much as a year to complete, too late for any effective remedy during the elections. In fact, the situation is even worse now that the legislature, in its last session, took away any enforcement powers from the office following claims that the office was controlled by the governor and was making “politically based” decisions.
The ad Chilcott is complaining about states:
“Chilcott tops $10,000 for travel expenses in 8 months
Figures taken from Ravalli County Commissioners’ expense reports show $10,119.54 spent by Chilcott January through August of 2011. Receipts include reimbursement for commuting to work and hotels and airfare to Tampa Florida, Washington D.C., Oregon and Washington states.
Meanwhile, Commissioners have slashed 26 County positions to balance the budget.”
Firstly, Chilcott claims that there is no such thing as a County Commissioner’s expense report.
“I wonder where they got their information?” he asks.
Big Dave Smith’s campaign director Marci Mansfield Smith was glad to share the claims submitted to the county for reimbursement by Chilcott covering the period from January 1, 2011 to August 30, 2011. They do indeed show travel expenses totaling over $10,000 for that period. Expense reports obtained by the Bitterroot Star from the county finance office corroborate those numbers.
The ad goes on to state that the receipts “include reimbursement for commuting to work and hotels and airfare to Tampa Florida, Washington D.C., Oregon and Washington states.”
Reimbursement receipts from the county show that Chilcott was reimbursed $3,103.67 for travel to and from work during that eight-month period. Chilcott claims that the reimbursement is required by law and that he cannot decline it. Others have claimed that the law merely requires that commissioners be reimbursed in an equal manner, but that it does not prevent the commissioners, as a board, from refusing the money. Chilcott admits that some counties in the state do not reimburse commissioners for the cost of commuting to work.
Regarding the reimbursements for travel expenses including airfare, lodging and meals, Chilcott denies that he took a trip to Tampa, Florida during the time period in question. The record is in his favor. It appears that the inclusion of Tampa, Florida, was an error based upon an entry in the claims that referred to the headquarters of the bank that handles the county’s credit card. However, claims submitted for reimbursement do show $6,011.54, in combined expenses, including airfare, meals, lodging, and registration fees (add cell phone charges and it would be more) for travel that included three out-of-state trips: a National Association of Counties conference in Portland, Oregon, a Montana Association of Counties conference in Washington D.C. and one in Wenatchee, Washington during that time period.
Add these travel expenses, $6,011.54, to the regular mileage in commuting to work over the eight-month period, $3,194.07, and you get a total of $9,205.61. A little less than the amount claimed in the ad.
Chilcott wants to distinguish between expenses that were borne by county taxpayers out of the general fund and those related to MACo and NACo affairs. Chilcott shows his reimbursements from the county for the eight-month period to be a total of $703.87 He claims that the other expenses were reimbursed by NACo and MACo and should not be counted as an expense to county taxpayers. Many of the charges were in fact reimbursed by those organizations.
Smith says, “Read the ad. It says taxpayers footed the bill and that’s true.” Smith points out that MACo and NACo are both taxpayer-supported organizations. “The bottom line is that taxpayers did indeed fund Chilcott’s travel junkets,” said Smith.
Chilcott also complains about the ad’s claim that commissioners slashed 26 positions to balance the budget. He refers to a county-produced spreadsheet that shows only 22 positions were eliminated. It shows that 14.175 Full Time Equivalent positions were eliminated that eliminated 17 employee jobs, while another 4.3 FTEs were eliminated through attrition which meant five vacant positions were not filled.
Smith’s information source was a September 16, 2012 newspaper article published in the Missoulian stating that 26 positions had been eliminated.
Actual falsehoods in the ad as assessed by this reporter: No trip to Tampa, Florida. Only 22 positions eliminated in the budget cut rather than the 26 claimed. The total estimate of the travel expenses was close, depending on what expenses were counted.
Who paid? The taxpayer – one way or another. Either through the county general fund or through county organizations such as MACo and NACo, which are taxpayer-supported organizations.