The finest custom-aged Midwestern steak, broiled exactly the way you like it, served sizzling in butter with fresh asparagus covered in hollandaise sauce on the side.
Maybe a 25th anniversary or a 50th birthday celebration where the family gathers and splurges for one night on a $45 New York strip or a $52 T-bone steak.
Of course, the entrees are served a la carte with the vegetables such as the creamed spinach or sweet potato casserole priced at around $9 each.
But, what the heck? It’s a special occasion.
Why not live a little, right?
Apparently, Columbia County agrees with you. Except this time, you — the taxpayers — are picking up the tab.
During a recent trip to Savannah in April, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners along with the county’s department directors and many of their spouses enjoyed a night out on the town that included a dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
The dinner tab for that one night was $3,571.
The meal was charged to Columbia County taxpayers using County Administrator Scott Johnson’s county credit card.
Along with the dinner, many of the Columbia County commissioners stayed at The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa directly on the Savannah River while the majority of the department directors spent the night at the beautiful Hyatt Regency Savannah on River Street.
There were additional charges by county staff or elected officials at The Westin Jekyll Island, the Staybridge Suites, The Inn at Ellis Square and La Quinta Inn in Savannah on or around that weekend that added up to an additional $2,015.
The total for just the lodging in Savannah amounted to about $9,280.
So, with the dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the lodging, taxpayers coughed up around $12,851 for the Savannah trip.
But, wait. That total does not include any transportation costs, another $330 meal at the River House Savannah charged by County Administrator Scott Johnson and an earlier charge to the Hyatt Regency of $1,057.20 made by one of the department directors on April 11. It is unclear if that is a separate trip or an early booking of rooms for that weekend.
If you include those charges, the total jumps to about $14,240.
Why, you may ask, were the commissioners and department heads traveling to Savannah for a meeting on April 18?
There were two reasons: First, many commissioners were attending the 2015 Annual Conference of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, or ACCG, to participate in classes or receive the required training for elected officials. Secondly, the department heads traveled to Savannah to meet with the commissioners for, what they call, a “planning advance” workshop.
During this year’s planning advance workshop in April, commissioners and department directors primarily discussed next year’s budget for approximately three hours, according to Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross.
The question many taxpayers may ask is: Was it necessary for the department heads to travel to Savannah, spend the night and have a dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House all for a three-hour meeting that could have easily been held elsewhere in the CSRA?
“Oh yeah. It gives us time to plan and provides the right type of atmosphere and the commissioners go to school to get their certification,” Cross said, after being told about the more than $14,000 in credit card charges made to the county involving the Savannah trip. “It was to discuss county business. We assess anything and everything in the county that anybody wants to bring up.”
As for the $3,500 meal at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Cross said it was just a matter of finding a restaurant to accommodate the entire group.
“Well, we needed a place big enough to have everybody to go to and there were two full tables there with 20 or 25 people,” Cross said, adding that he didn’t believe that the $3,500 charge was excessive. “I think it is realistic for a once or twice time a year.”
Of course, if there were 25 people attending the dinner that night, that averages to about $140 per person.
“I don’t think it’s extravagant being that it’s done only once or twice a year,” Cross repeated, explaining that the county usually hosts such a planning advance workshop with a dinner in the spring and in the fall during an ACCG conference in either Savannah, Atlanta or Athens. “We don’t do out-of-state travel at all unless it’s a bond rating hearing. I think it is conservative and a fair use of the taxpayer money.”
However, other Columbia County commissioners weren’t so sure.
Columbia County Commissioner Bill Morris, who was the only commissioner who did not attend the dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and drove down to Savannah on Saturday, April 18 for the three-hour meeting, was shocked when he heard the final tab was $3,500.
“Hmm… yeah, well, I wasn’t there so it is hard for me to say what all went on at that particular evening, but I guess everybody had a good time,” Morris said, adding that the public has every right to question such expenses. “The public needs to know and we are accountable to them. I think it is important to be as open and transparent as we can be. That’s the way it is supposed to work.”
Morris said the training and classes that commissioners receive relating to ACCG are extremely helpful and the planning advance workshops are important, but Morris said he was surprised by the total cost.
“Some of the commissioners go down a day or two early because they take classes and they stay a day or two later for training,” Morris said, adding he is serving in his second term on the commission. “I’ve already finished all of that, so I just went down the morning of the meeting and I came back that afternoon.”
Columbia County Commissioner Doug Duncan, who was sworn into office in January, was troubled by the trip’s expenses. Duncan said he and his wife attended the dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but he was unaware of the total bill or who picked up the tab.
“Well, I can only speak for myself, but I paid for my own hotel room,” Duncan said, explaining that he insists on paying for his hotel expenses, gas and food whenever he travels for the county. “In fact, I haven’t used a county credit card at all. I’m not even sure if it’s activated. I pay for my own room, travel and board. I pay for everything myself.”
Newly elected commissioner, Mack Taylor, was also taken aback by the $3,500 charge for dinner.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t know who paid for it,” Taylor said. “I kind of expected to pay my own and, instead, somebody took the bill. This was my first time doing the planning advance, so I didn’t know really what the custom was and I didn’t know how it got billed.”
Taylor acknowledged that perhaps he should have been more inquisitive about the bill.
During the evening at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Taylor recalled there were a number of department directors, commissioners and several spouses included in the dinner.
“I remember a lot of people had their spouses there, too,” Taylor said. “My wife wasn’t there. In fact, I may have been the only one without a spouse, other than Janeabeth Wells (the county administrator’s executive assistant), who is not married. So, every director, plus a spouse and the commissioners plus a spouse, so there were quite a few people there.”
When asked if he thought the county should be paying the spouses’ dinners as well during a trip, Taylor said he honestly wasn’t sure how the bill was handled.
“I don’t know how it was done or if the bill was broken down at all,” Taylor said. “But we had quite a few people there.”
According to the county’s own comprehensive policy manual, expenses for a spouse or other non-employees are considered “non-allowable expenses.”
County Administrator Scott Johnson was on vacation this past week and said he would prefer to answer any questions regarding the trip in person rather than over the phone. Columbia County Commissioner Trey Allen did not return phone calls from the Metro Spirit requesting a comment.
During this past election, both Taylor and Duncan insisted they were fiscally conservative Republicans.
“We must make fiscally sound decisions,” Taylor told the Columbia County News-Times during the November campaign.
In regards to the entire cost of the trip to Savannah, both commissioners said they would have to review the numbers.
“The only traveling that I’ve done has been all in state and it’s been for the core certification classes that are required,” Taylor said. “And the only thing that I’ve ever charged is the hotel. I pay for my own gas and I pay for my own meals. Apparently, save for the dinner I had at Ruth’s Chris, everything I’ve paid for has been out of pocket.”
And both commissioners said if they had to do it all over, they would have happily paid for their own meals.
“Again, I didn’t know who was doing what,” Taylor said. “I would have gladly paid for my own dinner. That’s what I fully expected, but I don’t know what happened.”
Taylor said there appears to be some “customs” that commissioners and staff may have developed over the years that might need to be reviewed.
“I’m sure there has been some customs that have developed,” Taylor said. “But I wouldn’t want to be overly critical of it. I like the fact that we can get everybody together and I think it helps lend to the team environment that we have. There is a definite benefit that I think comes out of that kind of trip.”
Overall, Taylor said he was extremely pleased with the work the commission and department directors accomplished at the planning advance workshop.
“It was, in my opinion, a good thing, whether all the circumstances around it were, I don’t know, but I really had no idea what the total bill was,” Taylor said. “I think, in the future, I would just probably insist on paying mine or my family’s expenses separately. I don’t want to charge a whole lot of things to the county. I want to be very reasonable when it comes to what is charged. The truth is, I should have asked.”
“I think you have to look at it in the totality of what is spent in a year and what we would have had to pay if we went somewhere separate,” Cross said. “If we went to Savannah as part of ACCG and then went somewhere different later on for planning advance, that would have been a lot more money. So, as far as the total expense every year, I don’t think we are out of line with it.”