Tax dollars send seven to conference in Hawaii
07:27 AM EST on Wednesday, November 19, 2008
By STUART WATSON / NewsChannel 36
E-mail Stuart: SWatson@WCNC.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's your money, and the Mecklenburg County Area Mental Health Agency spent thousands of dollars of it to send seven people to a conference on treating people with developmental disabilities -- a conference held in Hawaii.
A tipster who works in the mental health area e-mailed the NewsChannel 36 I-Team questioning the expense in a time of funding cutbacks in mental health.
Headlines in the Raleigh News and Observer in late August forecast "Budget Cuts Could Hurt State's Mentally Ill." But earlier that same month Mecklenburg County's local mental health agency sent not one or two but seven people to Honolulu.
Area Mental Health Director Grayce Crockett defends the expenditure saying, "I don't think the question would be asked if these people had gone to Mississippi or Alabama. The site of the conference was really irrelevant."
The seven-person contingent stayed at the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki. Expense reports obtained by the I-Team under an Open Records Act request show taxpayers paid $189 per person per night.
The hotel's website describes the resort as "two 28-story towers with floor to ceiling windows" and "spectacular ocean front views."
Airfare alone ran about $1,000 per person. The total cost to the taxpayers was more than $14,000.
Crockett says she remains comfortable with the expenditure.
Two of the seven people who went to the conference weren't even public employees. One was an outside contractor, a mental health provider.
Another was a client with developmental disabilities who receives services through the county.
Crockett explained the rationale behind sending a client by saying, "We funded a consumer because everything we do needs to be consumer driven."
Documents attached to the expense reports show the International Conference on Diverse Abilities and Innovative Supports lasted three days, Monday through Wednesday, with three seminars scheduled each day at an hour and 15 minutes each.
At the end of the conference five of the seven people who attended stayed in Hawaii at their own expense.
"We did not spend one additional dollar for them to stay on," said Crockett.
But Adam Searing of the North Carolina Justice Center, who lobbies for funding for people with mental illness, said, "This is crazy. Sending people to Hawaii just doesn't make any sense to me at all. I've lobbied for better health care for folks in North Carolina for over a decade and it's this kind of stuff that just seems outrageous."
County Commissioner Dan Bishop called the expense "absurd."
Mental Health agencies in Wake and Forsyth counties sent no one to the conference.