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City defends Chetola trip

Hotel rooms: $6,239.89.
Meals: $2,941.42.
Facilitator: $1,500.
Building strong intergovernmental relationships and improving city services: priceless.
That’s how Lincolnton City Council members and officials are defending the use of about $17,000 on two recent trips.
“I think if you look at the city, we do a tremendous amount of providing services — services that I think will compare to any city in the area. We provide the services at a very, very reasonable rate,” City Manager Jeff Emory said. Lincolnton’s tax rate is 56 cents per $100 valuation.
“I have to believe that having an annual retreat that involves employees and elected officials has played a great part in being able to do that.”
The city’s annual retreat was held at the Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock on March 18 to 21. The three-day meeting included presentations by city department heads on major issues they foresee in the coming year.
The retreat cost the city just over $11,000, receipts show. That includes rooms and meals for council and staff, and one meal for their spouses.
The city has been taking the trip to the annual retreat for more than 15 years, Emory said. In terms of facilities, Chetola is the best, he said.
“(The city) has tried other places, but Chetola’s just worked best,” he said.
Retreat participants start at 8 a.m., break for lunch and continue the discussions and presentations until around 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, council members discuss each issue.
A substantial amount of time is also spent preparing for the retreat, Emory said.
Lincoln County officials stay in town for their budget planning sessions, County Manager Stan Kiser said. Three years ago, commissioners went to Raleigh for a joint meeting with elected officials and spent one night.
“That’s the only work session out of county we’ve had in six or seven years,” Kiser said.
But county staff members are often sent to training events out of town, Kiser said.
“Things are constantly changing and employees have to go receive training,” he said. “You have to stay on top of it, and the way you do that is with training.”
City officials say the out-of-town retreat has numerous advantages that outweigh its cost.
It’s an intense process that leaders say is invaluable in planning for the city’s future.
“You’ve got all the department heads there, and you understand what their needs are,” Mayor Bobby Huitt said. “That’s the main thing — going off so we can get together and work out problems.”
Officials say being away from Lincolnton lets the council and staff work without interruptions and distractions.
It also fosters and helps build relationships between council and staff members, said Councilman Les Cloninger.
“One reason that we have been so successful in providing services for the town is the relationship the council has with the department heads,” Cloninger said. “That is a direct result of us getting to be together and getting to talk to each other.”
Emory, Huitt, Mayor Pro Tem Carroll Heavner and Councilman Larry Mac Hovis also attended the National League of Cities congressional conference in Washington, D.C. from March 6 to 9. The $6,000 tab for that trip included airfare, lodging, meals and other expenses like taxifare.
More than 4,000 people attended the conference this year, which updates officials on legislation that affects local governments.
Houser said the trip to the conference is money well spent. It’s necessary, he said, because as long as Congress appropriates money, local government officials have to show up in bodies if they want any part of it.
“It’s something you really need to do,” Houser said. “I just know it’s been a lot of money brought into the city and county from some of those meetings, so I don’t think it’s been a cost to the taxpayer when they go back and look at all of it.”
The money for these trips comes out of the city’s general fund.
Of the $8 million in that fund, just over 1 percent — about $90,000 — is designated for travel and training expenses for employees and department heads, Emory said. That amount was approved as part of the city’s 2003-04 budget, which met no opposition during a public hearing last year.
The city is a “big proponent of training,” Emory said.
“Cities have to operate like businesses. In any business you have to train your people.”
And the retreat, he said, is another successful tool in planning the city’s future and deciding how to use city funds.Said Emory, “We spend $11,000 going over major items that affect a budget of over $20 million.”by Alice Smith

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