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Tilly: Trip cost controversy

BY ZACH TILLY | SEPTEMBER 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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The president’s trip to Iowa City a few weeks ago back set the University of Iowa back $55,000 — did you hear?

Maybe you saw the shocking fact plastered above the fold on the front page of the Press-Citizen. Maybe you read the story after it got picked up by the Des Moines Register, the Gazette, or the Huffington Post. Maybe you heard somebody grumbling about the astronomical price tag on the street or in a coffee shop.

Maybe you were the one grumbling. (I heard they fed the media pork medallions.)

And why shouldn’t you grumble? Clearly, the president thinks he can just roll into town (late), talk for 20 minutes, shut down the whole campus, disrupt traffic (during FRY Fest), and then stick us with the tab.

It’s an outrageous thought, to be sure. Problem is, it’s not true.

Of the $55,000 cost incurred by the university, well over half, approximately $30,000, has been or will be paid back by the Obama campaign. Because campaign events such as Obama’s Sept. 7 speech on the Pentacrest are typically put on with very short notice, a purchase/reimbursement system makes sense because it defers a good deal of time-wasting bureaucratic rigmarole until after the event.

The reimbursable event costs include catering (likely consisting not only of pork medallions but of fine cheeses, assorted ceviches, and amuse-bouches as well), non-police labor, and telecommunications.

So that leaves us with a $25,000 difference left to the university. Less outrageous but still a lot.
Well, it turns out that of that money, approximately $10,000 went to pay regularly scheduled university security personnel, many of whom were assigned to watch over the Obama event. In other words, that $10,000 would have been paid on any given Friday.

OK, but there’s $15,000 still unaccounted for. Turns out that was used to pay overtime for extra university police officers assigned to the event.

And that’s it. That $55,000 cost you heard about was actually $15,000 to pay some cops overtime.
One semester’s worth of tuition from a freshman English major from Downers Grove is all it took to finance a visit from the President of the United States.

The “They Spent How Much?” story gets picked up after campaign events all over the place, not at all unreasonably. It’s an easy (cynical?) way to tap into collective anger by conjuring the image of a bloated kleptocracy running amok in the reader’s own back yard.

But, in this case at least, it’s also dishonest.


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