A Columbus city councilman will use taxpayer dollars to join a trade delegation to Asia later this year.
Jim Lienhoop will use up to $21,000 from the city council budget to fund the trip, which travels to Japan and China during the last two weeks of October and includes members of the Columbus Economic Development Board.
City officials and members of the economic development board, on which Lienhoop and councilman Frank Miller serve as liaisons, have beaten well-worn paths to Japan for more than 25 years, and they made the first annual trip to China in 1998.
But last year, Lienhoop said, the city didn’t send an elected official on the trip.
Council members learned recently that Mayor Kristen Brown, who went on the trip in 2012, did not plan to attend this year. Brown said her primary reason for not joining the delegation was based on the cost of the trip, which she called exorbitant.
Brown used $13,080 in city taxpayer dollars to fund her trip in 2012, according to city financial records provided by Clerk-Treasurer Luann Welmer.
Welmer said the funds came from the Board of Public Works and Safety budget, which the mayor chairs. The board’s budget this year, and its proposed budget for next year, provides for $15,300 in travel expenses, Welmer said. It provided for the same amount last year as well, she said, but those funds were not utilized.
Brown, who also sits on the Economic Development Board, told council members last week she thinks there are more effective uses for time — and taxpayer money — than making the two-week trip.
“I make myself very available to these local companies,” she said. “That’s important because the high-level executives at the local companies also are transplants.”
Lienhoop asked the mayor if she would be agreeable to the city council sending a council member to represent the city and using its own budget to fund the trip.
At the time, he said, the council was under the impression that it would need to approve an ordinance to transfer funds, which would require the mayor’s signature of approval. Since then, the council has learned from City Attorney Jeff Logston that it can shift funds administratively within its own budget, Lienhoop said.
Lienhoop said because there are still some questions about the cost of the trip, such as airplane ticket costs, he recommended a transfer of $21,000.
The council had $30,000 budgeted this year for miscellaneous professional services and has a little more than $27,346 left, Welmer said.
Going on the trip has value for the city, considering that 22 Japanese transplant companies have operations in the city, Lienhoop said. Those companies represent several hundreds of thousands of dollars in income taxes and millions more in property taxes, he said.
“I feel like we need to do what we can to maintain the relationship that we have with those folks,” Lienhoop said. “Those companies can leave the community just as easily as they came.”
Jason Hester, Columbus Economic Development Board executive director, said the trips serve to build relationships, let companies know how thankful the community is for their investment in the city and develop long-term prospects for future investment.
And while the economic development board invites all of its members, Hester said, there is a certain significance if the trip includes an elected official. That’s due to a cultural context; elected officials are viewed very highly in Japan and China, Hester said.
While Lienhoop said he respects the mayor’s choice not to go on the trip, the council thought the delegation ought to include a city representative, he said.
“We thought that skipping one year was questionable,” he said. “Skipping two just didn’t make sense to us.”
Without council funds, Lienhoop said, the cost of the trip would be prohibitive.
But shifting money that already has been budgeted for the council this year makes it possible for him to represent the city abroad, he said.