Several Guilford County commissioners – along with other commissioners across North Carolina – got an audience with the Trump administration in Washington on Wednesday, March 14.

The White House is attempting to strengthen its relationships with counties across the country, and as part of that effort, county commissioners from North Carolina were invited to meet with Trump administration officials. Commissioners from some other states have already had similar meetings and more states are expected to get their turn in the future.

Three Guilford County commissioners – Jeff Phillips, Kay Cashion and Chairman Alan Branson – attended the Wednesday afternoon meeting.

Those three weren’t be able to remain in DC long because of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting in the Old Guilford County Court House in Greensboro at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 15.

Branson said before the meeting with the officials in the Trump administration that he was looking forward to hearing from them regarding federal issues that affect North Carolina counties.

He said federal legislation has a tremendous effect on local businesses. For instance, Branson said, health insurance costs are spiraling out of control and affecting businesses in a major way. He said the trucking company he runs saw those costs increase about $80,000 this year.

“It’s painful,” the chairman said. “It’s a struggle.”

North Carolina commissioners have agreed on some federal legislation and funding they want to see. Some of those priorities are increased federal funding for support of broadband internet access, more dollars from Washington for school construction and infrastructure needs and the protection of the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds.

While in Washington, Branson said he also intended to meet with 6th District Congressman Mark Walker to discuss a number of issues.

Cashion said before the meeting with the Trump administration that she expected infrastructure to be a big topic and that the state’s commissioners needed this chance to make their case to the White House.

“North Carolina has our own priorities,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll get an opportunity to address our concerns.”

Phillips has tried to get his message heard by a president before. In 2016, when former President Barack Obama came to Greensboro, Phillips had a quick exchange with Obama on the airport tarmac at Piedmont Triad International Airport, and Phillips, then board chairman, slipped Obama a letter outlining some of Guilford County’s concerns related to federal actions and legislation. For instance, Phillips’ letter stressed to the president the financial burdens that result from unfunded federal mandates.

Cashion, who chairs the National Association of Counties (NACo) Arts and Culture Commission, also, on this trip to Washington, was scheduled to speak to Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit that promotes the arts. The group asked Cashion to speak on NACo’s arts initiatives and related topics to a group of about 600 people involved with the organization.

Cashion said there’s an increasing awareness of the importance of art and cultural events as a driver of economic development and that the arts account for $27.5 billion of the national economy annually. Cashion said that when she began chairing that committee, it had about a dozen people on it, but at the last meeting there were 90 people in the room representing over 25 states.

The commissioners were making this trip to Washington after attending a conference in the nation’s capital just two weeks ago. Six Guilford County commissioners attended the NACo Legislative Conference held from Saturday, March 3 to Wednesday, March 7. That conference, which takes place in Washington each year, brings together about 2,000 elected and appointed county officials.

In addition to Branson, Phillips and Cashion, Commissioners Skip Alston, Alan Perdue and Carlvena Foster went this year from Guilford County. The receipts for this year’s trip in early March haven’t all been submitted yet; but in 2017, when six commissioners attended the conference, the cost to the county’s taxpayers came to over $20,000.

Branson said he knows the trips sometimes get criticized because they do cost money, but he said he finds the information and exchanges very helpful. He said this year’s legislative conference earlier this month was especially relevant for Guilford County.

“A lot of the discussion was about opioids and infrastructure,” Branson said.

Branson drove Cashion up to that conference on Friday, March 2 – a day when the wind was blowing extremely hard along the East Coast.

Cashion said debris was flying everywhere and at times she thought the wind might blow the car off the road.

“Alan is a good driver,” Cashion said. “We were dodging debris.”

In some cases, local elected officials from around the country attend conferences like this simply to enjoy a nice trip at taxpayer expense. In fact, sometimes attendees take trips like this without attending many – or in some cases any – conference seminars or educational events, but those who go and participate say the legislative conference experience can be very valuable to the county in terms of the impact on federal legislation and the lessons on efficient government that commissioners learn through the classes and panel discussions.

While the commissioners state frequently that these types of conferences are beneficial to county residents, one is hard pressed to identify any tangible rewards that have come from county attendance. About a decade ago, the commissioners learned about a NACo prescription drug discount card program that provided actual savings to county citizens who signed up for and used the card. While that was a nice perk for citizens who got a card, for years that prescription drug discount card became kind of a running joke in relation to benefits coming from commissioner conferences precisely because that was the one thing the commissioners always pointed to as an actual benefit for the citizens who were paying the way.

Commissioner Hank Henning, who was elected to his District 6 seat in 2012, said this week that he came close to going up to the meeting with the Trump administration but in the end decided against it.

“I’m 100 percent junket free up until now,” Henning said, adding he could continue to make that claim.

Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said the March 14 meeting with the administration was an unusual event and she also said it was interesting that the invitations for Guilford County commissioners were sent directly to the commissioners rather than to the clerk’s office to distribute, which is the way most federal items come to the county.

Branson, before heading to Washington, said that he hoped the commissioners would get to dine with Melania and Ivanka Trump while in DC. However, it was highly doubtful that would occur.