Taxpayers who covered the costs of sending local officials to a three-day Illinois Municipal League conference also paid to send public agencies to exhibit there.
Six state agencies and the Pace suburban bus system spent nearly $10,000 to operate promotional exhibition booths at the lobbying group's annual conference in downtown Chicago in September.
That included nearly $6,500 paid to the IML for exhibition space. In addition, four of the state agencies combined to spend more than $2,300 on hotel rooms at the conference for employees who staffed the booths, according to a Daily Herald analysis invoices and expenses obtained through public records requests.
Critics argue taxpayers are, in effect, covering the costs to send exhibitors, as well as local officials, to the conference run by the IML, which is also partly taxpayer-supported through dues paid by member communities.
"We have to remember Illinois hasn't had a balanced budget or even a budget for several years, which has resulted in billions of dollars in back bills, and we're going to send staff off at a cost to taxpayers when we can't pay dentists or for kids' medicine? I don't think it's an appropriate use of resources," said East Dundee Republican state Rep. Allen Skillicorn. "I can't think how they're serving the residents of Illinois by being at a conference and staying at a hotel."
Skillicorn has been a critic of spending at the IML conference since the Daily Herald reported suburban elected officials and municipal staff members spent nearly $120,000 of taxpayers' money to attend the conference, including for cocktails, dining at restaurants such as Carmine's and Smith & Wollensky, valet parking and $300-a-night hotel rooms. The four Round Lake-area suburbs combined to spend more than $35,600 at the conference, almost one-third of the total spent by 50 suburbs that sent representation to the event.
Skillicorn has also called for officials in Lake in the Hills, which is in his district, to pay back more than $11,000 taxpayers in that village spent to send seven elected officials and two staff members to the conference.
IML Executive Director Brad Cole said the conference offers a chance for the state to promote its services.
"For any of the exhibitors, it's an opportunity to see 2,000 people walk in front of you," Cole said. "The state agencies each have a marketing budget to reach out, and this is a pretty easy one-stop shop to encounter everyone from public works directors to the mayor."
IML is a quasi-governmental organization based in Springfield that relies on a combination of taxpayer-funded dues, service fees and a portion of an insurance fund it manages for fire departments across the state to finance its operation, which largely involves lobbying legislators on municipal tax issues. Despite its reliance on public funding, IML is not subject to the state's public records laws and doesn't disclose its operating budget or annual audit, though its employees are eligible to receive public pensions through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.
It's unknown how much profit IML makes from the conference each year. Along with the seven publicly funded agencies that paid for booths, about 130 companies and firms paid the agency for exhibition space, which would have resulted in roughly $150,000 in revenue for the organization from that source alone.
Each of the seven public agencies spent $925 for a booth at the conference. Some of the booths were staffed by senior-level employees who are paid more than $100,000 a year each, according to public records.
"This year there were a number of legislative changes that took place in regard to local tax distributions and administrative changes in the department's general ledger/accounting system," said Illinois Department of Revenue spokesman Terry Horstman. "We believed having a presence at the IML meeting would allow us to promptly address concerns and answer any question that local government officials might have."
The state revenue department spent the most of any of the public agencies at $1,840.60. In addition to the booth fee, taxpayers also covered $894.60 in hotel costs and $21 in transportation expenses for the department.
The other state agencies and their spending on the conference are the Illinois Department of Transportation, $1,739.40; Illinois State Board of Education, $1,718.20; and Illinois State Treasurer's office, $1,355.20, all of which included hotel expenses.
The Illinois Department of Human Rights, at $935, and Illinois Housing Development Authority, $1,045, sent contingents to the conference to staff booths but did not pay hotel costs. Pace spent $1,058.68 on the event, according to the financial reports sent by the agencies.
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