The Port of Plenty?
HOUSTON If you live in Harris County, just look at your tax bill. You pay money every single year to support the Port of Houston. Is your investment being taken for granted? This is Nova Scotia's famous Port of Halifax. If its entertaining spokesman, Lord Haligonian, was at Ryan Duffy's Steak House last September, he may have run into three top officials of our Port of Houston. The chairman, Jim Edmonds, was there. So was president, Alec Dreyer. One long night of food and liquor -- almost $900. Of course, the Port paid for their spouses, too, even though port policy says commissioners should reimburse. "The perfect example of unaccountability," Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said. "Having that kind of dinner seemed to be small compensation for them volunteering their time," Dreyer said. Volunteering because half a dozen government executives -- on your dime -- apparently needed help to land a Port convention here in 2014 for the historic 100-year anniversary of the Houston Ship Channel. And why did it take six port officials to go anyway? Registration at the convention totaled more than $8,000. Just one air fare -- $2,200. A hotel bill for another commissioner and his wife -- almost $1,600. You get the point. We did notice Jim Edmonds' hotel bill in Halifax was nearly twice as big per night as everyone else's -- $400 a day. That's because he got to stay at the Haliburton, a historic boutique hotel. Edmonds spent $8,000 for a single plane ticket to Paris, France, supposedly to make a speech. The other 16 days of the trip -- vacation time. Edmonds had been to Europe just weeks before. This time, the International Port Conference in Genoa, Italy. Christopher Columbus was born there. Three port commissioners had to go -- more first-class travel. One staff member had an entertainment bill of nearly $3,000 in three nights. Dinners and drinks for some of the port big wigs are between $700 and $1,100 a night, plus more bar bills. By the way, commissioners don't have to fill out their own expense reports. But we did learn that we paid for the spouses' entertainment again. Guess it was more of that volunteering. "They can spend it whatever way they want to," Bettencourt said. We found plane tickets to London for two PHA execs last December -- $7, 500 apiece. And that's before gas prices went crazy. The Port pays a travel agent $35 a ticket to book every single flight, so it can get those really good fares. When you look at the bills, you can tell. The New York trade week... "I'm not familiar with all those individual charges," Dreyer said. One day entertainment $2,512. The next day -- $1,857 more. That sounds like party money well spent. "I had difficulty in understanding how it was yielding the kind of benefits that we hoping that meeting would have," Dreyer said. A suite for just one night at this year's rodeo for the port execs and a few clients cost $3,250, about the cost of average Port tax bill for 150 Houston families. There is an ancient state law that lets Ports spend part of their revenues on promotion and development. Of course, if they spend it wisely then maybe they wouldn't need so much our tax money. "What the public needs to understand is this law makes the Port effectively, completely unaccountable to anyone," Bettencourt said. And the Port president says they've cut administrative expenses by eight percent in the last two years. Just imagine how they used to spend their money.