Records requests shed light on city, county travel reimbursements

I'VE BEEN EVERYWHERE: In 2016, Buncombe County and city of Asheville employees traveled much of the United States going to conferences, training seminars and other work-related forums. County employees spent $341,639 on travel, while city employees spent $153,662 on reimbursed travel, not including travel budgets not provided to Xpress in our request.
I'VE BEEN EVERYWHERE: In 2016, Buncombe County and city of Asheville employees traveled much of the United States going to conferences, training seminars and other work-related forums. County employees spent $341,639 on travel, while city employees spent $153,662 on reimbursed travel, not including travel budgets not provided to Xpress in our request. Graphic by Virginia Daffron

Most of us try to manage our household budgets by tracking expenditures while keeping an eye out for questionable items. That concern carries over to the political arena: People want to be sure their tax dollars are getting spent wisely.

So in honor of this year’s Sunshine Week — a nationwide celebration of transparency in government (or the lack of it) — Xpress decided to take a look at publicly subsidized travel by elected officials and employees of Buncombe County and the city of Asheville during the 2016 calendar year.

In early February, we asked both to provide information about all reimbursed travel during the period in question by the end of the month. The county request was fulfilled in nine days, and the register of deeds complied with a separate request within just five days.

The city, however, took 31 days to supply its info, with staff saying the request had gotten “lost in the mire of email.” And when it finally arrived, the data were incomplete, since it didn’t include reimbursements from the separate, department-level travel budgets. This made it harder to compare city and county expenditures.

The open records request made it clear we were planning “an article looking at the overall costs the city spent on travel” and that they should reach out if “they need clarification or have questions.” Nonetheless, the city maintains that it fulfilled our request.

Both the city and county granted in-person meetings to discuss the records within three business days of the interview requests, and Xpress came away with a clearer picture of how the two local governments handle subsidized travel, what records are kept, and how top officials feel about sending staff out of town at the public’s expense.

(Note: Both the city and county have a July 1-June 30 fiscal year, which doesn’t correspond to the calendar year we used for this story. So when calculating budget percentages, we averaged the 2015-16 and 2016-17 budgets. And since all dollar amounts cited were rounded to the nearest dollar, the average, per capita and per department figures aren’t a perfect fit with the total spending.)

Leaving on a jet plane

In calendar year 2016, Buncombe County spent $341,639 on employee travel to conferences, training, certifications, reconnaissance missions and more. All told, 777 reimbursements were paid, which works out to an average of $440 per reimbursement. Of the county’s roughly 1,500 employees, 358 received reimbursements; the reimbursements averaged $954 per employee. No member of the Board of Commissioners was reimbursed for travel during that period.

Over two fiscal years, the county’s budget averaged $401,007,875, with travel expenses accounting for about 0.09 percent of it.

Asked for comment, Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman said: “The budget’s a huge number. It’s a big organization, and honestly, it’s a question we haven’t looked at in detail before. I don’t have an opinion if it’s over the top or reasonable or low compared to what other local governments spend on travel and training.”

During the same period, the city of Asheville spent $153,662 on 774 travel reimbursements, according to the information provided. The average reimbursement was about $199. Those payments went to 396 employees and Council members, for an average of about $388 per recipient. Lacking information about the department-level travel budgets, however, we couldn’t determine the total expenditures.

In all, the city spent $2,369 reimbursing four Council members for travel. Asheville employed an average of 1,285 employees during that period. And the average of its two fiscal-year budgets was $158,997,916, putting its travel reimbursements at just under 0.1 percent of the budget.

Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn did offer to pull together data for the departmental travel budgets, which wasn’t immediately available, but Xpress declined since she would have had so little time before the story deadline.

Here’s a breakdown of city travel reimbursements by department: City Manager’s Office, $2,058; Capital Projects Division, $1,660; Development Services, $8,778; Economic Development, $13,276; Finance Department, $12,536; Fire, $29,068; Sustainability Office, $984; General Services, $2,611; Human Resources, $1,891; Information Technology, $5,837; Legal, $1,882; Parks and Recreation, $10,006; Planning, $672; Police, $35,744; Public Works, $8,921; Transportation, $3,804; and Water, $11,565.

The county data wasn’t broken down by department.

In both cases, the reimbursement rates are set by the two governments’ respective travel policies, which follow U.S. General Services Administration recommendations. As of October 2016, those rates were capped as follows: $117 per night for lodging; $64 a day for meals (only two meals a day are covered). Mileage reimbursements used the 2016 IRS rate: 54 cents per mile. Both policies instruct travelers to fly coach.

We gotta get out of this place

Collectively, these city and county staffers traveled to nearly every major city in North Carolina; more distant destinations included Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Toronto.

“I didn’t see anything in it that gave me heartburn,” says County Manager Wanda Greene. “We expect our employees to stay up-to-date in their particular areas.”

There are various reasons for sending employees out of town, she notes. “It needs to be something [the employee] really needs. It needs to be something that you bring back home and we learn enough from it that it was worth the investment. We’re pretty picky about that.”

Newman points out that simply spending time with one’s professional peers can be valuable. “We want to see what other forward-looking governments around the country are doing. You don’t just want to be figuring it out all on your own,” he explains, though he cautions, “If people are going to Hawaii, there better be a real good reason for it.”

Whitehorn, meanwhile, says, “We want to make sure employees get the best training they can. So long as the travel they’re doing speaks to what they’re doing in their job, I think it’s a good thing.”

NC Travel Graphic
ROAD WARRIORS: Buncombe County and city of Asheville employees traversed much of the Tar Heel State while attending various functions on behalf of their respective governments. County and city administrations tell Xpress their preference is to get training close to home when possible. And when training needs call for leaving North Carolina, managers do their best to make sure the travel is warranted. Graphic by Virginia Daffron

Weighed in the balance

So how do department heads balance the need for keeping current against the temptation to travel on the taxpayer dime? One way is by vetting requests.

“I think we all ask the same questions,” says Greene. “Can’t you get this training closer to home? How’s it going to benefit us? There’s got to be a lot of justification for us to let you take a trip.” But sometimes, she continues, “They only offer training in one part of the country, and it’s an issue that’s a hot one at the moment.”

Whitehorn echoes that point, saying the city’s always looking for cheaper alternatives while trying to maintain a sense of fairness and trust.

“We don’t want to be draconian and say you have to present this spreadsheet that shows where all the training is located and when it is,” she explains. “We try to be flexible, so people can do the things they need to do to be successful in their job. But we also want to make sure we’re being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

“I’ve denied travel a couple of times,” Whitehorn reveals. Usually, she notes, that means “it’s not fitting into where I want to see a position develop. Maybe someone wants to go to a training in purchasing, and I feel like their position is better suited to move in a different direction.”

Greene, meanwhile, points out, “Sometimes it’s more expensive to fly to Florida than it is to California, so you check all the associated costs.” In addition, employees often apply for grants and scholarships that help offset costs. For example, the county secured $10,537 in grants to send seven people to the Family Justice Conference in San Diego last April, cutting local government’s cost to $5,726.

Homeward-bound

Besides trying to prevent frivolous travel, both the city and county also want to get the best return on such investments. Recertifications or other certificates can verify course attendance and provide evidence that employees optimized their travel time. Lacking those, it may be up to the employees to share what they learned and how it can be integrated back home.

“I find that directors want to know what their employees learned at the conference,” says Greene. “What did you hear that we need to be doing here, and how do we approach getting that done? There are debriefings.”

Employees, adds Whitehorn, are often genuinely excited about sharing new techniques and best practices. The city may also take steps to secure knowledge gained at taxpayer expense.

“In some cases, we require people to sign an agreement to stick around for so many months after we fund something major,” she explains. “If we were to fund someone finishing up classes to take the CPA exam, we would likely make them sign a contract stating they will continue employment with the city for two years or reimburse the city.”

The county doesn’t do that, says Greene, and Newman isn’t sure he’s on board with the idea. “That’s interesting, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing the [Board of Commissioners] needs to get down in the weeds on,” he observes. “I can see pros and cons, but I’m not sure it’s something we’d weigh in on.”

But Xpress’ travel records request, says Newman, makes him wonder if the county is following best practices. “Maybe we should benchmark with other similar-sized governments to see if we’re doing anything outside of the herd, so to speak, and to see if there are any conferences that raise questions.” County staff, he adds, should have “some process to give feedback on whether a conference is effective or not.”

Xpress reached out to the UNC School of Government and the N.C. League of Municipalities to ask if there’s a standard percentage of the overall budget that governments should aim for in regard to travel expenses. However, both organizations said they don’t have one and don’t know of any such metric.

On the road again

Some county employees racked up considerably more travel reimbursements than the $954 average: The top three spent $10,291, $9,525 and $7,538, respectively.

In most cases, notes Greene, those employees are researching new software the county is thinking of buying. “We want to see and talk to those people before we make a multimillion-dollar investment,” she explains. “I’d rather spend this and buy the right system than save that money and buy a system that wouldn’t work for us. For me, that’s a return-on-investment issue.”

But couldn’t that kind of fact-gathering be done remotely at much lower cost?

“No, you really have to see it physically,” says Greene. “You need to actually work with your counterpart; you need to hear the real story that they’ll tell you sitting beside you that they’re not going to tell you over the phone.” That kind of research, she maintains, “is really critical to making a major purchase that will last you 10 years. It’s a pretty small investment to make sure we do the right thing.”

Road to nowhere

The county records provided to Xpress, however, listed a number of travel reimbursements with no specified destination and only a vague description. Examples include: $650, $485 and $469 for “training”; $205 for “42563”; $838 for “leadership workshop”; $1,017 for “auditor training”; $651 for “pre-service”; and $328 for “planning.”

“One of the things we’ve learned from this process is we need to do better descriptions on some of these trips,” Greene concedes. “I can certainly see that it raises questions.” After inspecting the document, even she had to seek clarification on a few items. But she’s quick to clarify that specific questions were asked before approving those reimbursements, and looking ahead to next year, “I think what you’ll see are better descriptions.”

Newman supports that idea. “It seems like it should be more detailed … so, internally and externally, we can know what we spent and where — and if it’s worth it,” he says.

Running on empty

Newman is also aware of the potential pitfalls of taxpayer-funded travel. “In the past, when people have done stuff that is questionable, they’ve gotten burned on it,” he points out, recalling a controversial 2010 trip by members of the Asheville Regional Airport Authority to an aviation conference in Hawaii. “You really shouldn’t think of travel as a perk, and if you do you definitely shouldn’t abuse it, because people are going to ask questions.”

Last year, Newman paid his own way to Park City, Utah, for a training session for the Energy Innovation Task Force. “It was absolutely a working conference, and I absolutely could have had it covered,” he explains. “I just paid it because I felt like it would be political fodder. It was worth it for it to be a nonissue.”

City Council members’ travel expenses, meanwhile, “are quite moderate,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said in an email, “but Council should review its travel policy and make sure it is up to date and reflective of the current Council travel demands and training opportunities.”

Ultimately, says Newman, staff travel is necessary, and sometimes that means sending people to attractive destinations. Conference organizers, he points out, want to feature places that are interesting or otherwise appealing. “That’s where it creates the question whether people are going for educational benefits or because it’s a fun vacation.”

Buncombe County’s Family Justice Center, which opened in August, is “an example where we’re doing things that are very forward-looking,” he maintains. And the county sent those seven employees to the San Diego conference last spring because “those are the kinds of ideas you don’t just come up with yourself. I think what we’re doing emerged from what’s happening around the country and hearing from some of the real innovators in that arena,” he explains, adding, “It doesn’t raise a flag for me.”

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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