DOT out of town on your dime

August 3, 2009 1:13:09 PM PDT
The state budget shortfall is projected to reach $3.5 billion, and everyone is being asked to tighten their belts, but you wouldn't know that from some undercover video shot by the Eyewitness News investigative team.At a luxury hotel in Wilmington, state Department of Transportation employees enjoyed free meals and fancy hotel rooms on the public dime while taking part in a conference.

Eyewitness News went to the event after getting a tip from a DOT insider.

"I am sick over this misuse of dollars as we anticipate layoffs, more budget cuts, etc." read the note.

As we roamed the halls, it appeared even wives and children were along for the ride. Outside meetings, different companies had displays set up to try and convince DOT engineers to hire them for road projects.

Outside, the parking lots were full of DOT vehicles. The taxpayers paid for engineers from across the state to drive to Wilmington.

News of the conference didn't sit well with State Representative Paul Stam (R, Wake Co.) when we told him about it.

"In all of state government, we just have to practice frugality," he said.

Stam is the House minority leader, and says there's too much government waste.

"The Department of Transportation in particular is hurting for money, and it just doesn't help the road building capacity of the state to spend money that you don't have to spend," he offered.

That sentiment was echoed by our DOT tipster.

"What kind of message does it send to the public, as well as other state employees, when we are in such financial straits, but can afford a few days at the beach in Wilmington?" the person wrote.

We asked the DOT's Chief Operating Officer what he thought of the criticism.

"We welcome a critical analysis from employees, from citizens, from local government leaders, from anyone," said Jim Trogdon.

Trogdon told Eyewitness News he considered calling off the conference, but that cancelling would have cost more than having it.

"We were already locked in, so the question was do we lose the money and gain no value or do we execute it at a reduced cost, and still gain some value out of the conference," he explained.

The DOT says the Hilton Riverside was going to charge the taxpayers $62,000 to cancel the conference. Instead, the DOT decided to pay $10,000 less. So, it cost $52,000 to hold the conference and another one just like it next week.

That's a big bill when the Governor has ordered a 9 percent cut in the state budget.

"If I had to make this decision today from scratch, knowing what we know today, we would not be doing a conference this year," said Trogdon.

We pressed the Hilton about the DOT claim that it would've cost more to cancel the conference than to hold the conference. The hotel would not discuss details of the contract but did say "cancellation fees never exceed the total value of any conference."

So, we asked the DOT about that, and they say they stand by their story. The DOT also says it reduced expenses by reducing the number of people who attended and by getting vendors to pay for some of the food.

The hotel also pointed out that it has laid-off 25 percent of its workers because of a downturn in tourism. So, the conference is helping some people in the hospitality industry keep their job.


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