CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - A year ago this month, a Pinellas County businessman was named in the latest group of more than 285 to be inducted into the International Towing Hall of Fame in Tennessee.
But the I-Team discovered that friends and family were not the only ones to accompany him to the ceremony nearly 600 miles away. So did the majority of the Pinellas Park City Council at taxpayer's expense.
Tucked in a quiet valley in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee sits the International Towing Hall of Fame Museum, a destination visited last fall by three of the five members of the Pinellas Park City Council.
The cost to taxpayers was more than $2,600.
Records reviewed by the I-Team show Mayor Sandra Bradbury, Councilman Rick Butler and Councilman Jerry Mullins each drove separately for the nearly 1,200-mile round trip.
Taxpayers picked up the bills for that mileage, per diem expenses and the induction ceremony package.
The $390 cost per person included deluxe lodging, cocktails and a dinner choice of chicken Marsala or filet mignon.
The event honored Joe's Towing owner Joe Kolodziej, who has assisted area firefighters for decades by providing wrecked cars and equipment to train them in extraction techniques.
“If I saved one life, one life out of all the stuff I've done, if I saved one life, it was worth it,” Kolodziej said of his volunteer efforts.
Just about everybody who knows Joe agrees he should be honored, but plenty of people in Pinellas Park disagree with the city picking up the tab for hotel rooms, cocktail parties and filet mignon dinners.
Last August, the Pinellas Park City Council gave Joe a key to the city and issued a proclamation in his honor.
Joe is regularly paid for services he provides to the city and operates the city’s impound lot.
“Even if this guy went to the moon and back, they could take their own $400,” said Anthony Iosue. “It’s the principle.”
“You've got to draw the line somewhere. I'd like to have a filet mignon too, but Social Security doesn't allow me to have it,” said Bill Reese.
All three of the officials took their spouses along and the mayor also took her son.
While the city requires officials to pay back companion expenses, Mayor Bradbury and Councilman Mullins didn't reimburse the city until we inquired about trip nearly two months later.
“Just to take taxes and blow money like that, I wish I had money like that to blow,” said Rachael Stein, who said she hasn’t had a vacation in six years.
Joe said the city council's participation in his big day was priceless.
“That just made me so big. I’m still glowing about that thing,” Kolodziej.
But taxpayers we spoke to say there's no such thing as free filet mignon.
“There are people here who don't have $400 to spend. Why should they use the people's money?” said Iosue.
While none of the council members wanted to do an interview, a city spokesperson said, "Joe got the award for doing things for the city, so we felt it was important to show our support for him."
He said the money came from a budget item allocated for council member travel.