Travel spending: a matter of perspective


Times-News, Burlington, N.C.

Aug. 16—Alamance County govern ment spent about $129.68 million from its general fund during the 2007-08 budget year. Of that, the board of commissioners budgeted less than half of 1 percent for travel.

Thanks, in part, to a freeze on travel, county employees spent roughly 60 percent of the budgeted amount. But when and where county employees go and what the cost adds up to be has been in the spotlight for months.

Since the fall of 2007, Commissioner Tim Sutton has periodically shared his worries about travel spending, espe cially those concerning the county Department of Social Services. Sutton served on the board until resigning last month over what he termed “philo sophical differences.” Among other things, Sutton has crit icized a trip DSS Director Susan Osborne took to Las Vegas, as well as the number of trips Osborne took.

Sutton's criticisms eventually led County Manager David Smith to hire an accounting firm to audit the DSS, and to conduct a second in-house audit of all county travel.

The second audit shows that employees in the inspections depart ment and two departments Sheriff Terry Johnson oversees spent more on travel than social services did for the 2007-08 budget year.

Travel by inspections employees totaled more than $54,800. Much of that expense went for mileage.

Travel by the jail and sheriff's office employees totaled $51,366.38 — $7,920.63 for the jail and $43,445.75 for the sheriff's office.

At the DSS, employees tallied nearly $50,000 in travel expenses for the 2007-08 budget year.

Combined, travel expenses at the four county departments totaled more than $156,000, or nearly half of the nearly $315,000 that all county employees spent on travel from July 1, 2007, to June 30 of this year.

For the current budget year, the travel portion of the county's budget is just over $445,000. The figure does not include $60,743, the per diem budget for ongoing revaluation work.

The county commissioners approved travel budget requests for 2007-08 and 2008-09 after Smith recommended them. Such approvals are typical and generally routine.

The commissioners also approved a $10,000 travel budget for the landfill staff for both years; in 2007-08, the landfill spent just over $4,250. That spending isn't included in the nearly $315,000 of overall travel spending because the landfill supports itself by collecting fees, not by taxes, said Susan Roberts, the county's assistant finance director.

“I think our agency has always conservatively used county funds,” Osborne said Wednesday. “Travel is no different.” Overall, the county DSS “consistently returns almost $1 million a year” to the county's general fund, Osborne added.

Much of the travel expenses involve mileage reimbursement for employees forced to drive their cars on the job because of a shortage of county cars at her agency, she said.

Osborne added that her travel should decrease this year since she is no longer the president of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services.

The trip to Las Vegas was required to secure grants totaling $2 million, Osborne has said. Sutton disputes that claim.

However, he has refrained from criticizing travel spending at the sheriff's office and other county departments, other than to say that overall, the county spends too much on travel.

Sheriff's office employees made a number of long-distance trips over the last budget year.

In October 2007, Johnson and sheriff's personnel manager John Glenn went to Las Vegas on a four-day trip to learn about the possible ramifications of pending federal legislation to allow collective bargaining for all law enforcement agencies, Glenn said. Expenses, which included $1,190 in registration fees, totaled nearly $3,270, figures from Glenn show.

In December, the sheriff's gang unit went to Las Vegas for training, the audit shows. Airfare, lodging and registration totaled more than $4,130.

Johnson's trips also included North Carolina Sheriff's Association conference at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville and a second sheriff's conference in Wilmington.

Sheriff's investigators attended domestic violence investigation training in Orlando, Fla., while other sheriff's employees attended training sessions in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Pinehurst and Sunset Beach.

Johnson and Glenn say sheriff's employees typically take trips only for training or to investigate crimes.

“They made us turn in receipts, and for every meal we eat,” Sheriff Johnson said.

Some training trips are grantrequired and mostly paid for by the grants, sheriff's spokesman Randy Jones said.

The trip to Orlando was a requirement of a $250,000 grant, he said.

Given such sums the grants generate for the county, the trips are a good investment, Jones added.

Despite the vacation-oriented locales of some of the trips, Jones said the excursions are serious business.

At one recent training session, attendees went to class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If a deputy had failed to show for even one of three daily attendance checks, the sheriff's office would have been responsible for the entire cost of the trip, Jones said.

Glenn schedules the trips for the sheriff's office.

The tightening of the travel policy has saved the county money, but makes it harder for him to pay for travel for required training, Glenn said. “The biggest hardship I've had is not having a credit card.” Glenn said he is using the sheriff's personal credit card to pay for such trips now.

Johnson says his department must keep training to meet professional standards.

“You cannot hold an individual accountable for their actions unless you provide the proper training,” Johnson said.

When Smith put a travel freeze in place earlier this year, Johnson said it cost him about $250; the losses came for training trips that had to be booked six months or more in advance.

A check of previous travel budgets under then-County Manager David Cheek had been as high as $500,000, Smith said.

Smith said he is pleased with the level of overall spending shown in the audit, but he promised to keep a tighter reign on future travel outlays.

Monitoring of travel spending had become lax recently, and existing policies on travel approval weren't being followed, Smith said.

Smith blamed himself for the lapses. “I think it's my fault. I wasn't following it closely enough.” Opinions remain divided, though, on the county's board of commissioners on whether travel spending was too high.

Commissioner Chairman Larry Sharpe said he has never had a problem with travel spending. “I don't think we've ever been real extravagant with the travel budget in the (20) years I've been on the board.” Department heads should make the decision on whether an employee needs to travel, Sharpe added.

Sharpe and Commissioner Ann Vaughan say Sutton's focus on Osborne's travel was much ado about nothing, and amounted to little more than an attempt by Sutton and Smith to oust the DSS director.

“I think it was a witch hunt. And I'll stand by that forever,” Vaughan said.

Sutton has scoffed at Vaughan's assertion. He said the audits put the breaks on travel spending and saved the county about $200,000.

Sutton said he never “pointblank criticized” Osborne's trips. His initial request was for a countywide travel audit, he said. “I had concerns about every county department.” Like Smith, Sutton is pleased with the audit figures, but thinks more belt-tightening is in order, including travel by the commissioners. In his 14 years on the board, Sutton said he has never taken an overnight trip for county business on the taxpayer's dime.

SUTTON HAS BEEN simmering over the issue for some time.

Last fall, he began raising concerns about Osborne's travel and the level of travel spending at the county DSS.

The following November, Smith began enforcing an existing county policy that required his signature on all out-of-state travel, including trips covered by grants. In January 2008, Smith extended that to all overnight trips. Not long after, he ended the practice of allowing department heads to sign out county credit cards and use them to pay for travel.

In February, Smith asked Joyce and Co., CPA of Cary to conduct an audit into how the DSS documented its expenses on travel and other items. No other county departments were included in the audit.

On April 1, Smith, as part of a memo to county department heads detailing a projected budget shortfall, announced a freeze on all travel by county employees.

On July 1, Smith lifted a freeze on all county travel, but kept in place a requirement that he approve all travel requests.

Since then, Smith has OK'd all sheriff's office travel requests, Glenn said.

Also in July, the DSS board gave Osborne its full backing after hearing her explanations about the findings of the Joyce audit.

Vaughan said Smith was correct in putting a hold on travel, but she disagrees with the county manager on other points.

Who is traveling is among her concerns.

Glenn and Jones are among the sheriff's temporary, contract employees who take trips. Jones said such employees are parttimers who receive no benefits.

Vaughan didn't mention Jones and Glenn by name, but she questions whether such employees should travel. “I do question whether the county should pay for their travel.” Vaughan also takes issue with the way the county initially went about investigating DSS travel spending.

“I think all departments should have been under the same scrutiny,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan remains opposed to a recent move by Smith that granted county employees a $45 per diem on trips. Keeping up with meal receipts is just too cumbersome for the county, Smith has said.

County employees should be required to turn in receipts on all expenses, Vaughan said.

“If you want a reimbursement you must produce a receipt. It's taxpayer's money. We're not a corporation.” Sutton agrees with Smith's decision to sign off on all travel. “It's got to be monitored. You just can't let (department heads) make the decision on where they want to go.” Smith said the department heads have responded “quite well” to his directives, for the most part. “I understand where we are and I'm pleased that we've been able to cut it as much as we have.” His moves, Smith added, have made department heads “more responsive” and a “little more conscious” about travel spending. Osborne said the controversy and resulting belt-tightening hasn't changed the way she handles travel.

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