Walton County Under Fire for Convention Attendance

Walton County officials will be joining hundreds of other government officials from around the country next week in Washington D.C. They'll be going there for the National Association of Counties convention. Most will be making the trip at taxpayers' expense.

From Saturday until next Thursday, 15 Walton County officials will be in Washington for the conference. The question on most people's minds is why so many?

Peter Jackson, a Walton County resident, had strong opinions.

“I think it’s an outrageous number of people to send. Were sending twice as many as counties that are twice the population."

The total cost for each person will be about $1,900 which includes airfare, hotel, meals and conference registration.

Walton County administrator Ronnie Bell, who isn’t going, defends the trip saying the county is pursuing federal money for two major projects.

Mickey Morris, Freeport Mayor, said widening US 331 is a major item on the agenda.

"We're going up there to beg for some money. The state of Florida don't have enough to four lane 331 from 98 to I-10, so we re going to ask for federal money."

Bell says the other issue is money to renourish the 20 miles of beach that the Department of Environmental Protection has declared critically eroded.

“Those are not two issues we'll be able to fund with state funds or entirely with county funds we have to look at federal funds at assist us with those two projects."

And according to Bell, all of the people that are attending are some benefiting from the conference.

“They’re going for the right reasons, to look for dollars. The other thing is to look for additional training and info to bring back to Walton County."

"That money, it needs to go somewhere else, schools and everything in this area sure could use it more than some people going to DC."

"The taxpayers should always be concerned on how tax dollars is being spent, but I think that we can show the taxpayers how their tax dollars is being spent."

Meanwhile, Gulf County, which is struggling to maintain an old jail, provide adequate animal control and re-establish a hospital, is sending six people to the Washington conference.

Three county commissioners are going, along with the county's supervisor, chief administrative officer and the Public Works superintendent.

While many agree the conference is generally a good thing, some don't believe Gulf County should be sending as many as six people.

County Commissioner Billy Traylor, who is not going, is one of them.

"I've been to the show. I've been one time in 17 years and one time was enough. It's very expensive. It can actually cost you money because everything is so expensive, and you know, to be honest with you, it costs the taxpayers' money. Most of what you can get accomplished you can do it right here in your home town."

Bay County officials in Panama City say they didn't see a need to spend the money to send anyone to the conference in Washington DC.

County Manager Ed Smith says Bay County officials keep up to date on important government issues using Internet Web sites and e-mail.

Although there will be important topics discussed at the legislative conference, Smith says the county doesn't feel the trip is worth the cost at this time.

"The conference can be useful I think it's also very expensive. We’re kept up to date by the National Association of Counties as well as the Florida Association of Counties on issues that pertain to us so we stay abreast of it. Congressman Boyd's office does a great job of doing that as well so I think all in all we decided it wasn't worth the cost at this time."

Bay County is not in the minority. Of the 67 Florida counties, only 27 are attending the convention, 40 are not going.

Alachua County is sending two people. Broward County has four going. Duval and Orange cCounties are not sending anyone to Washington. Hillsborough has four, and Miami-Dade, the largest county in the state, is sending eight, only half of what Walton County sending, and just two more people than Gulf County is sending.

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