BOSSIER PARISH, LA (KSLA) - Bossier Parish taxpayers paid thousands to send five people to the annual Washington Mardi Gras this year.
One political watchdog doesn't think the public should be footing the bill for the public officials to go to parties.
On the other hand, parish officials say building relationships with Washington, D.C., politicians helps get federal money for projects.
Washington Mardi Gras includes a dinner dance, a congressional party and a Mardi Gras ball.
Expense reports obtained through public records requests show it cost Bossier Parish roughly $15,000 to send three police jurors and two other parish officials to Washington Mardi Gras.
Police Jury President Bob Brotherton and fellow Police Jurors Jack "Bump" Skaggs and Rick Avery attended.
Bossier Parish public dollars also paid for parish attorney Patrick Jackson and parish engineer Butch Ford to go.
The celebration in the nation's capital that has been held annually for 60 years.
The Mystick Krewe of Louisianians puts on the Carnival ball. The krewe's website describes the celebration as the one time of year that brings "the finest Louisiana has to offer" to Washington, D.C.
Elliott Stonecipher, a political watchdog activist, has a different take. He said it is very obvious what the event is all about. "It is a social event where political insiders go to celebrate being political insiders."
Through a public records request, it was learned that Bossier Parish officials paid for tickets to a dinner dance, a congressional reception, a Mardi Gras ball, a lunch and the Louisiana Alive party.
The total cost for the tickets and registration was $5,450. That is on top of $9,500 for airfare, hotels and meals.
"In today's atmosphere of so much political heat over excessive and unnecessary spending, the first thing you would cut is taxpayer money to Mardi Gras," Stonecipher argued.
"In all fairness to everybody involved, I have known in my career many public officials who would either never go to Washington Mardi Gras or, if they did, they went on their own money. So a lot of people in elected office know not to do this."
So why is the public on the hook for paying public officials to go?
Skaggs, who aside from registration costs spent nearly $1,500 in public funds on the trip, said there is much more to it than the party side of activities.
"Washington Mardi Gras, it's kind of titled as a party but it is actually a business trip" and it is about building relationships, he said.
Brotherton agreed. "It is hard work. We don't go up there to play; I don't go up there to play."
Not counting registration, he spent $1,276 for his flight, hotel and meals for 2.5 days.
"Is it worth the $15,000 the parish spent? Absolutely."
Brotherton said he was there talking with politicians about issues important to the parish.
"I just want the public to know, I think there has been a misnomer for years. The general public thinks we go up there to party and play, but we don't."
He emphasized that Bossier public officials go there to do business,
"The reason why we go during that period of time, what they call Washington Mardi Gras, is because we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, our senators and our congressmen are going to be there because it is a Louisiana celebration for them."
Jackson, the parish attorney, said going to Washington Mardi Gras is about rubbing shoulders with the politicians who can get federal funding for their parish projects.
He charged taxpayers roughly $2,300, not counting registration, for his four-day trip to Washington, D.C.
"It's the only time during the year that I have unfettered access to the staffs of those elected leaders and those policy drivers," Jackson said.
Projects like bringing CSRA'S Integrated Technology Center to Bossier, extending Arthur Ray Teague Parkway through the federal wildlife preserve and getting the parish's transportation plan at least partially funding by the federal government are all examples of what can come out of lobbying at Washington Mardi Gras, he said.
"Without Mardi Gras, I don't know how we would do that.
"If I could spend a day or two with those necessary decision makers to advocate on behalf of our community why we need these things and how many people it will impact and why it's important that the federal dollars be pushed forward, then I think it is absolutely worth the money that is spent."
Because public money is used to fund the trip, KSLA News 12 took a closer look at the itemized expenses involved in the trip.
Jackson's plane ticket from Shreveport to Washington D.C. cost $1,091, a price much higher than the other plane tickets for the men on the trip that ranged from $500 to $600.
Documents show his ticket cost an extra $500 because one day before the trip, he decided to fly back a day early.
On top of that, the documents show he spent an extra $50 on preferred seats.
Jackson said a glitch in the system required him to pay for his seat. "There was some kind of problem with the reservations system, and my assistant could only get a seat if I paid for a seat choice."
As for as the flight itinerary changes, he said he had to change his flight because of a personal family situation.
"When you go into D.C. at the last minute into DCA and you leave on a Friday, which is a business travelers day, it is just expensive."
Looking at the dates of the booked flights, it appears many of the flights were booked within two weeks of the trip. Many times, that is the most expensive time to book a flight.
Jackson said it is policy to wait until the weeks leading up to the trip to book a flight because a non-refundable ticket is less expensive than a refundable ticket.
"Oftentimes, we've had folks that can commit and, at the last minute, something happens. We've just made a policy decision not to waste taxpayer dollars, that we have to cancel and can't get refunded."
Bossier Parish's travel policy outlines what protocol public officials must follow when booking flights.
The policy encourages travelers to make the most cost-effective decisions, such as taking into account possible change in travel dates, possible meeting cancellations and how much savings each type of ticket offers.
Regardless of the price, Brotherton said the cost of the trip is worth every penny.
"I think the record does speak for itself. We are one of the fastest-growing parishes in the state of Louisiana because we are doing things right."
Still, Stonecipher thinks with the advances in technology, there are other ways to build relationships in Washington, D.C.
"Look at where we are today. We are in a totally different world, and that juror is using the same excuse being used for 40 years."
"If there were a better, cheaper way to do it where I could get unfettered access to the decision makers and establish relationships, we would be doing it."
He said they have been going to the event for 15 years and expect to do it another 15.
Ultimately, Stonecipher said, it is up to taxpayers to decide whether their money should be spent on the yearly trip.
"If you make it easy for your public officials to waste your money, they will always waste your money," he said. "Taxpayers get mad enough about anything, they always make it stop."
Bossier Parish has a lobbyist on its payroll for nearly $48,000 a year.
Bossier City pays the same lobbyist an additional $48,000 a year under a separate contract.
A Bossier Police Jury spokesman said Bossier Parish did not send the lobbyist to Washington Mardi Gras.
She is paid to lobby during Louisiana legislative sessions on behalf of the parish and city, not when it comes to Washington, D.C, politics, the spokesman said.