County Commissioners tend to absorb travel costs

Published 12:05 am Sunday, March 13, 2016

Rowan County Commissioners don’t move much above the minimums when it comes to travel reimbursements.

During the previous year and a half, commissioners spent $3,830.19 on out-of-county travel. All travel costs were for conferences held by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. Most commissioners attended a legislative goals conference at Pinehurst Resort in January 2015. Commissioner Mike Caskey attended an essentials of county government conference in August 2014 and a justice and public safety conference in March 2015. Three of five commissioners also attended an awards ceremony for County Clerk Carolyn Barger in August 2015.

The Salisbury Post requested travel records of elected officials in Rowan County from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 fiscal years  as part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative that aims to promote dialogue about open government and freedom of information.

Although his most expensive trip was for an essentials of county government course, Caskey spent the most of anyone on the board — about $900. However, more than one other commissioner hasn’t turned in some travel expenses for reimbursement, according to Barger. As a result, some commissioners are absorbing the costs of travel for county purposes.

County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said he hasn’t turned in some travel reimbursements because he’s willing to absorb the costs. Edds said it’s up to each individual commissioner whether to turn in travel reimbursements.

Edds, for example, traveled to Richmond, Virginia, for oral arguments in the county’s prayer lawsuit. He traveled to Richmond with his wife Kim, but didn’t ask the county to provide reimbursement for himself.

The most notable expense turned in by Edds was a $62.98 breakfast he shared with Vice Chair Jim Greene during the Pinehurst conference. Greene said the pair opted for the cheapest option possible at the resort. Greene joked that he may have been able to order something cheaper, if needed.

“I guess I could have ordered water and toast, and then it would have still been 18 bucks at that point,” Greene said.

Multiple county commissioners noted that a $300-per-month travel stipend provides enough money for regular travel. Commissioners are asked to provide their own cars to serve on the board.

“We don’t buy five county vehicles — in a lot of counties, that’s what they do,” said Commissioner Craig Pierce. “We just don’t think that’s fair to the citizens.”

With the $300 stipend, commissioners received a combined total of $20,000 during the 2014-2015 fiscal year. At the end of February, Rowan County Commissioners have received a combined total of about $12,600 for travel-related expenditures.

Even when the regular travel stipend is added to travel costs, commissioners aren’t the biggest spenders in Rowan.

“I think the county does an admirable job of controlling costs,” Greene said. “I don’t stay anywhere on the county’s dollar that I wouldn’t stay myself.”

Commissioner Judy Klusman said commissioners’ travels aren’t different than the way businesses operate.

“This is our work, just like some people get a company car or turn their mileage in,” Klusman said. “It’s the same thing.”

Although taxpayer-funded travel costs are controlled, commissioners may be traveling more than before. There’s regularly scheduled commissioners meetings, various committee meetings and travel for matters on meeting agendas. Edds is also traveling to Charlotte to participate in economic development groups that commissioners haven’t participated in until recently.

“If you expect to be part of the dinner feast, you’ve got to get yourself to the table,” Edds said. “We have been absent within the region for a long time. Even folks whose responsibility it was to be at many of these meetings and represent Rowan County chose not to represent the county.”

By not participating in regional groups, he said outsiders may think “that Rowan County doesn’t want to be part of the growth and doesn’t want to be part of the discussion.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.