Politics & Government

3 local boards went on retreats. Only one stayed in town, and the costs reflect that

CMS board debates talk and action on equity

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members debate the value of creating a citizen equity panel.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members debate the value of creating a citizen equity panel.

The three biggest local governing bodies in Mecklenburg County all went on their annual planning retreats within the past month, but their expenses varied widely, as one stayed in town and two ventured further afield.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board met for two days at Central Piedmont Community College and spent about $1,200. The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners spent three days at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, spending $26,024.

Charlotte City Council went to the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills Hotel.

The most expensive retreat was Charlotte City Council’s: The city spent about $58,765 on hotel rooms, food, audio/visual equipment, a facilitator and speaker, according to preliminary estimates. Spokeswoman Jordan-Ashley Walker also said the cost estimates could change, and the city found at least one instance where staff believes they were overcharged and are disputing the bill.

The city’s retreat appears to be its most expensive in recent years. Past Charlotte costs have ranged from $6,239 for a retreat at the Duke Endowment in Charlotte to $48,722 for a retreat at Pinehurst.

Walker said the latest three-day retreat was longer than previous programs and council arrived the evening before the first day, instead of that morning. That resulted in higher costs.

Spending on retreats represents a tiny fraction of government budgets — Mecklenburg County’s budget is $1.7 billion, while the city of Charlotte’s budget totaled $2.6 billion in the current fiscal year. But retreats and the cost associated with them can be a sensitive issue for voters, with taxpayer funds picking up the tab.

The county has traditionally held its retreats at CPCC’s conference center off Billy Graham Parkway. County chairman George Dunlap said it was worth spending more to move the retreat out of Charlotte this year because members got to spend more time together away from the pressures of daily life.

“I think it was extremely helpful,” said Dunlap. “I don’t think we would have been able to do the things we did and accomplish the work we accomplished having to deal with the interruptions that occur, had we been at home.”

Four of the board’s nine members are new. Commissioner Pat Cotham, an incumbent who had criticized the cost of holding the retreat at the Grandover, didn’t attend because she was at a family funeral.

“Everyone that attended thought it went extremely well,” said Dunlap. He said that in addition to fleshing out their priorities for the coming year, the board spent time on “touchy-feely things,” such as learning how they communicate and how they can best work together.

“We had an opportunity to fellowship outside of the meeting session, to relax and get to know each other and talk,” said Dunlap. “Had our previous boards done that, I think we would have had better working relationships.”

Mecklenburg’s retreat budget included $8,950 for hotel rooms, $6,588 for food, $3,765 for audio/visual equipment and services, and $3,150 for facilitators, plus taxes and fees. The county is still disputing a wifi charge from the resort, spokesman Danny Diehl said.

The CMS board used to do off-site retreats, including one at the Grandover, before the recession. But board Chair Mary McCray, who has led the board for seven years, said the board’s expense budget remains limited so it makes more sense to avail themselves of free space available through county parks, CPCC and UNC Charlotte.

“I would love for us to be able to go to some exotic location like the Grandover, but it’s not necessary,” McCray said. The board met last month at CPCC’s Levine campus in Matthews, paying only for catered breakfasts and lunches — and setting out leftover food for students.

Several people went out for dinner Friday after that day’s session adjourned, and McCray said they paid for their own meals.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, facilitated the CMS meeting at no charge, a service available to member districts.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.