Where peers spend $50 or less, Rocky Mount leaders' retreat costs taxpayers $70,000
Posted September 14, 2021 6:47 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2021 10:56 a.m. EDT
Rocky Mount, N.C. — Documents obtained by WRAL News show the City of Rocky Mount’s annual retreat in April cost taxpayers more than $70,000.
The cost of the trip has divided city leadership, some of whom pushed for the retreat to be held locally.
“I think as leaders we need to set the example for our citizens and our staff,” Councilman Lige Daughtridge said.
The records received by WRAL News show the mayor, city council, city manager and several other city leaders spent $70,444.99 over three days and two nights at the Omni Grove Park Inn, a luxury resort in Asheville.
From April 7 to April 9, the city spent more than $43,000 at the hotel, including $23,299.25 on hotel rooms for two nights, and $12,173.27 on meals.
The city also paid two consultants $20,000 as part of the trip.
April’s retreat marked a steep increase in price for the annual getaway. In March, WRAL News reported that the city’s past two retreats, in 2018 and 2019, cost $30,398.35 combined.
The city council voted 4 to 3 to hold the retreat in Asheville in a meeting on Feb. 8, with proponents Reuben Blackwell, TJ Walker, Andre Knight and Richard Joyner saying they wanted an opportunity to see Asheville’s affordable housing projects in person.
“It’s a lot of good ideas, but the proof in the pudding’s in the eating,” Blackwell said. “I would like to see how did it work, let me see the streets, what the neighborhood looks like.”
During that February meeting, Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson opposed traveling for the retreat, saying it should’ve been held at the Rocky Mount Events Center instead.
Records show Roberson paid for his own travel and expenses at the hotel, and Daughtridge paid for his own lodging and reimbursed the city for his meals during the trip.
“It should not be lost on anyone that we went to Asheville to discuss affordable housing while staying and holding the retreat at the luxurious Grove Park Inn resort,” Daughtride said. “How can you discuss affordable housing in one of the country’s most expensive resorts while people in Rocky Mount can’t afford food, housing or utilities?”
In a statement, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said she supported holding the retreat in Asheville because she takes her directions from the city council and supports their decisions.
Small-Toney also said the Omni Grove Park Inn was selected because no other venue in Asheville could allow them to broadcast the meetings live for the community while also providing enough space for social distancing.
WRAL News looked at how Rocky Mount’s retreat compared to those in similar communities.
Nashville’s annual retreat is held in the town’s chambers, with an estimated cost of $50 for water and snacks. No meals or lodging are provided.
The City of Wilson told WRAL News they stopped holding out-of-town retreats over a decade ago, last holding a half-day retreat in their council chambers in 2016.
WRAL News asked the four council members who voted in favor of the trip to Asheville and the Grove Park Inn why the resort was chosen instead of a less expensive hotel.
Only the Ward 4 representative, Walker, responded. He said the council was able to see how Asheville executed its affordable housing projects and that they could continue to execute their variant of community development.
In March, City Manager Small-Toney estimated the trip would cost between $16,000 and $18,000. Asked about the discrepancy between her estimate and the actual cost, she did not reply.