Benton County's lobbying activity on state and federal issues will be curtailed sharply next year because the travel money almost is gone.
Just $5,000 is left for commissioner travel costs for the rest of this year and all of next year.
And the commissioners have decided to divide the remaining money three ways, which virtually eliminates opportunities to travel to Washington, D.C., or to spend much time in Olympia lobbying for legislation.
The county started the 2011-12 biennium with $15,000 for travel expenses for the three commissioners and their staff.
Almost half of that was spent by Commission Chairman Leo Bowman by June 30, records show.
He ran up expenses at a similar pace in 2010 when he spent 87 percent of the commissioners' total travel budget in the first nine months. That year's budget was $7,500. But because of the rapid rate of spending, commissioners, on a split vote, added another $5,000 to the fund that year.
A Tri-City Herald review of 800 pages of travel expense documents obtained through the state's Open Public Records Act show Bowman's expenses far outpace those of his fellow commissioners last year and this year.
Every year, Bowman attends conferences for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties and the annual meetings of the Washington State Counties Association in Olympia, and he makes lobbying trips to Olympia.
He said he hits the road because Benton County needs a voice where decisions are made -- at the state and national level.
"There is nothing our government does in Washington, D.C., and Olympia that doesn't affect the citizens of Benton County," he said.
Still, he recently agreed to vote with his fellow commissioners to equally divide the $5,000 left in this biennium's travel budget, giving each about $1,700 to spend through the end of 2012.
Commissioners Jim Beaver and Shon Small refused to add any more money to this year's biennium budget for commissioner travel.
For the first half of this year -- one quarter through the biennium -- Bowman's travel expenses totaled $7,109. That's 47 percent of the budgeted amount.
Small spent $75 during the same period. And Beaver spent $118.
Bowman contends his travel costs are less expensive than paying a lobbyist in Olympia or Washington, D.C., noting that Richland and Kennewick have paid lobbyists in Olympia.
Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley said Kennewick's lobbyist is paid $3,000 a month to work with state legislators.
She said the city used to have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but discontinued it several years ago. The $10,000 a month fee wasn't worth it, she said.
Bowman said state legislators representing Benton County have experience and knowledge about cities, law enforcement, business and education, "but they don't understand the breadth of issues that face counties."
Trips to Olympia to meet with legislators and for annual meetings with the county associations build relationships that benefit the county, he said.
Bowman now doubts he will attend the annual Washington State Counties Association conference in November in Bellevue or have money or permission to travel to Olympia when the Legislature convenes in January.
However, he plans to drive to Ellensburg todayto attend the association's meeting about November's special legislative session and how it might affect counties.
"I think we need to be there, whether it's me, Jim or Shon. A lot of important issues will be decided in the governor's budget," he said.
Bowman has been involved with the association for 14 years, served as its president and held every board officer position. He also has been chairman of the legislative steering committee.
If Bowman attends the annual meeting and goes to Olympia for the legislative session, there will be no money to attend the National Association of Counties conference in March or fulfill duties as chairman of that group's transportation committee in 2012.
Being familiar with local transportation issues has made Bowman the go-to guy with legislators, he said.
One example he cited was his ability to use his past contacts with the BNSF railroad to save the city of Prosser a $20,000 a year fee increase for the former railroad depot.
"I do feel I can have an impact on federal issues, like transportation. Every year I get a call from legislators about transportation needs in Benton County and we've been successful in getting some grants," Bowman said.
With no money budgeted and no more likely to be provided, Benton County commissioners will have to stay at home next year.
"There's no other way to do this unless I take the money out of my personal pocket," Bowman said.
"How is it going to work? I don't have an answer," he said.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org