County Pols Opt Out of Hawaii Mtg Due to Budget Concerns

County officials (search) in some states are backing out of a five-day national conference next month in Hawaii, saying they would feel guilty spending taxpayers' money on expensive airfares and beachside hotels during tight budget times.

The Hawaii Convention Center is booked to hold the annual meeting of the National Association of Counties.

"It's an outrageous extravagance by elected officials who have no concern for the taxpayers," Commissioner Steve Arnold of Guilford County, N.C, told the News and Record of Greensboro, N.C.

So far officials in Alabama, Illinois, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin also have abandoned the trip, citing similar concerns.

Airfares from the East Coast to Hawaii cost anywhere from $600 to $1,600. Room rates at the five Waikiki hotels listed for convention attendees range from $179 to $295 per night.

Skepticism about business trips to coveted travel destinations is common, said Jeremy Ratner, spokesman for the National Association of Counties (search) in Washington, D.C.

"Obviously, Hawaii is a beautiful place and there's somewhat of a perception that Hawaii is a place where people go for vacation rather than a conference ... but our days are nine to five out there."

Hawaii was chosen as the site for the 2005 convention seven years ago, Ratner said.

Convention organizers — mindful of the perception that county officials are traveling to a place known for its sand and surf — have armed participants with an unprecedented list of "helpful reminders" they can use to counter negative publicity about the trip.

The issue presents a challenge to Hawaii Tourism Authority (search) officials working to broaden the state's reputation from a popular vacation destination to one that would appeal to businesses and associations seeking locations for their conventions.

Last year the tourism authority ran a pilot marketing campaign in Southern California aimed at changing people's perception of Hawaii as a destination only good for sipping Mai Tais or shopping in Waikiki (search).

"We are not here to deny what we are but to turn it into an asset," said Frank Haas, the agency's vice president of tourism marketing.

The National Association of Counties' Honolulu convention is set for July 15-19; about 4,000 people are scheduled to attend.

Convention sites are picked by a board of directors comprised of representatives from every state, Ratner said. The directors look at a state's accessibility, hotel availability and whether it has a large enough building to hold the event, said Kim Struble, the association's director of conferences.