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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006| Two San Diego County supervisors are headed abroad next month – to Asia and Europe – on free trips that come courtesy of organizations that have received more than $718,000 from those officials’ discretionary budgets.

Supervisors Ron Roberts and Pam Slater-Price have used two pots of taxpayer-funded grant money, criticized for being a tool to reward supporters, to regularly dispense funds since 2001 to the two groups orchestrating the international junkets.

Roberts and his chief of staff take off in mid-October on a 26-day trade mission to Japan, China and Singapore. He will meet with the Singapore Economic Development Board and municipal government officials in seven Chinese cities. In Japan, he’ll meet with officials from Kyocera, a technology firm with San Diego ties.

The $19,541 trip is being paid for by the San Diego World Trade Center. In the current budget year, Roberts allocated $20,000 in taxpayer funds to the local group. He has given them $530,000 in taxpayer-funded discretionary money since 2002.

Slater-Price leaves in early October on a 12-day trip to Austria and the Czech Republic. She’ll attend a Mozart opera in Prague, followed by a wine reception and dinner at a Renaissance-era castle. In Salzburg, she’ll see private concerts at a palace and at the home where Mozart was born.

In Vienna, the supervisor will attend a performance of “The Magic Flute,” Sunday mass with the Vienna Boys Choir and a gala dinner at Palais Auersberg. Then it’s off to an all-Mozart concert by renowned German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Slater-Price is planning to meet with business leaders and Austrian tourism officials to promote San Diego, but her chief of staff doesn’t know who she’ll meet and did not have an itinerary. She leaves in eight days.

She was invited by Mainly Mozart, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization to which Slater-Price has given at least $188,000 in discretionary funding since 2001.

The supervisors’ acceptance of the travel gifts was unanimously approved by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The supervisors and their hosts stress the importance of being accompanied by an elected official while traveling abroad. And they said the funds are a way to disperse money to worthwhile causes in their districts, such as cultural centers, chambers of commerce and Boys & Girls Clubs.

Critics say that program is a misuse of public money, a slush fund that guarantees photo opportunities of supervisors handing out oversized checks to their constituents – such as the Joslyn-Lake Hodges Lawn Bowling Club, a recipient this year.

Richard Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, a grassroots advocacy group, said the discretionary budget gives supervisors “a $2 million reelection fund.”

“There’s a huge conflict of interest giving money to people who then subsidize your travels around the world,” Rider said. “This goes beyond a hint of impropriety. This is impropriety. This is absolutely a wrongful act on their behalf.”

In a memo to board members, Slater-Price said her European trip is a “fact-finding exchange” that would promote tourism in San Diego.

But Barbara Riggs, Mainly Mozart’s director of public relations, said the trip is “not actually a fact-finding mission. It’s more for the information and entertainment of the people who are going.”

Mainly Mozart’s high-end supporters will get a behind-the-scenes look at life in the cities where Mozart lived and composed, Riggs said.

“It really is something that you would not get from the ordinary travel agency,” she said.

Slater-Price is being included in the trip, Riggs said, because of the taxpayer-funded grants she has given to the ongoing Mozart events, as well as her leadership on a key steering committee. Many of the gifts have sponsored charity fundraising concerts.

While abroad, Slater-Price will meet with leaders of Austrian arts organizations, said Riggs, who did not know what meetings the Austrian Tourist Office had scheduled for the supervisor. That office extended the invitation to the county, and it is financing Slater-Price’s $6,000 trip.

Roberts, who has traveled four times to Asia on World Trade Center-sponsored missions, has been a major sponsor of the center. In the last four years, his $530,000 in grants has outpaced the $342,000 in private funding given to the corporation’s Asia Desk. The desk focuses on connecting San Diego businesses with Asian business partners.

Roberts said his taxpayer-funded grants have paid for technology fairs and conferences – not for his travel.

“We’ve made it clear that any monies that pay for any of the trips have to come out of contributions and donations that they’re going to get,” Roberts said. “It has to come out of a different income stream. We’ve tried to keep those things separate.”

Roberts said his trips have been valuable tools to connect San Diego businesses with trade partners abroad. Having an elected official along can be an important boost, he said.

“It’s absolutely vital for us to be able to gain access and the high-level attention from Asian governments,” said Bella Heule, president/CEO of the San Diego World Trade Center. “It’s very different to do business in Asia than it is in the U.S. If we don’t have the government representation, then they don’t take us seriously as a delegation. It’s absolutely critical to the success of doing business.”

John Weil, Slater-Price’s chief of staff, said the Austria trip will similarly benefit from elected representation.

“The hope is that we’ll be able to come back with new ideas for expanding the (Mozart) festival and increasing tourism,” Weil said, noting that 167,000 people have attended the region’s Mozart 250th birthday celebrations and pumped $10.6 million into the local economy.

The groups sponsoring each trip have benefited from two county grant programs that will use $13 million in taxpayer funding this year.

Of that, $3 million comes from revenues tied to the county’s hotel room tax. Supervisors each get an equal share to spend on items related to culture, tourism and economic development related items.

Supervisors also have $2 million each to distribute as they see fit, through a program called the Community Projects Fund.

A 2005 San Diego County Grand Jury report found that each supervisor’s personal priorities determined where that funding went. The grand jury report called the eight-year-old Community Projects Fund an “undocumented program.”

No application was available on the county’s website, it said. Requests for funding must be made directly to supervisors’ offices, it said.

The grand jury report said it was unknown whether the money was going to organizations that needed it most. Supervisors should publicize the availability of grant funds to all county organizations, the report said.

More than a year after the report was released, an application still cannot be found on the county website.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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