Sunshine week: Rowan’s towns vary widely on travel expenses
Editor’s note: March 13-19 is Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information and what it means for citizens and the community. This is one of a series of stories examining access to local elected officials’ travel reports and how much they spend.
By Rebecca Rider
Landis’s travel records became a point of contention in January after Alderman Dorland Abernathy revealed that the previous board spent nearly half their travel budget during an August 2015 conference.
But requested documents from the 2014-15 fiscal year through Feb. 15 of the current year show that high spending was not uncommon for Landis — the town spent nearly $45,000 through charges to the town credit card and reimbursement requests.
But none of that spending went over budget, and the town did not have a travel policy at the time. Landis currently has a $30,000 travel expense line item for elected officials. But in 2012-2013, that number was only $15,000.
Town Manager Reed Linn said that Landis requires a higher travel budget than other towns because it provides its own water, sewer and electricity to its citizens. Board members attend an annual ElectriCities conference and Town Hall Day in Raleigh, in addition to other meetings.
Between the beginning of the 2014-15 fiscal year to the end of his term in fall 2015, former mayor James Furr requested reimbursement for attending over 90 meetings.
Meetings included a Cancer Run in Landis — where Furr said he was requested to speak — Chamber of Commerce meetings, school visits and a funeral, where Furr said he spoke to state representatives.
“It is the job of the mayor,” he said, “You are the public representative of Landis.”
But current Mayor Mike Mahaley said he never saw the need to attend many meetings during his former and current term.
“That is not usual,” he said.
In addition to the high credit card charges during the August 2015 ElectriCities conference in Myrtle Beach, credit card receipts also show individual charges:
- Former Alderman Tony Hilton spent $7,957.88 between credit card charges and reimbursement requests.
- Former Mayor James Furr spent roughly $13,000. Furr’s reimbursements include a trip to Washington, D.C. for the Congressional Economic Development Summit, with credit card charges that total $425. On June 17, 2015, Furr requested reimbursement for 44 special meetings, from a period between December and June.
- Former Alderman Roger Safrit spent nearly $8,000. Charges include a $457.88 credit card charge at 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh. Safrit said on that occasion the bills of all five aldermen and their wives were put on a single card. Safrit also charged gas to the town’s credit card and also requested reimbursement for mileage.
- Dorland Abernathy spent approximately $8,000, and submitted several reimbursement requests for attending League of Municipalities meetings.
- Dennis Brown spent approximately $8,500, including a $405.39 charge to 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh and a $128.36 charge to a wireless store in Kannapolis.
All charges include two Town Hall days and two ElectriCities conferences — one of which was held in Pinehurst.
Landis’s new travel policy, instated in February, requires all travel receive prior approval from the mayor or town manager, limits aldermen to a $75-per-day meal budget, forbids charging gas to a town credit card for a personal vehicle and states that all reimbursement requests must be returned to the mayor within five business days.
Mahaley said that the travel budget will be getting a serious overhaul for the next year.
“We will not be budgeting that much from now on. We won’t be going to Disney World,” he said.
According to Town Clerk Tori Lowe, the fiscal year 2015-16 budget allowed $75 for the town board’s travel expenses.
Spencer’s travel policy states that employees, elected and appointed officials are reimbursed for out-of-town travel at actual costs for reasonable expenses. Travel in personal vehicles is reimbursed at a mileage rate consistent with current IRS limits for non-taxable reimbursement authorized by the Board of Aldermen.
If lodging is offered and available at the institution where the meeting or conference is being held, town employees must use it.
The policy states that meal reimbursements are guided by reasonableness. Meal expenses are usually reimbursed only when they are incurred on out-of-town travel or the business meeting is a meal.
All reimbursement requests must be supported by detailed documentation, such as receipts. The town manager, with recommendations from the finance director, may deny reimbursement of any request that is “questionable, unsupported or excessive.”
Violation of the policy could result in discharge or other disciplinary action.
Granite Quarry Town Manager Phil Conrad said the town does not provide for any travel expenses for the board. Mayor Bill Feather, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Brinkley and aldermen Arin Wilhelm, Jim LaFevers and Jim Costantino are “responsible for their own travel expenses,” which are included in their board salaries, Conrad said.
While the town board has no separate line item for “travel,” it does have “mayor and board expense” and “board contingency” accounts out of which the town pays for town officials’ registration costs at things such as conferences, Town Hall Days in Raleigh or dinner meetings they attend as representatives of the town.
The Granite Quarry staff provided information for when the town paid funds out of “mayor and board expense” or “board contingency” during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years.
These expenses included the following:
- $24 for three board members ($8 each) to attend the Rowan Municipal Association dinner meeting Nov. 12, 2015, in East Spencer.
- An $89 registration fee for Brinkley to attend the Creative Solutions for Thriving Communities Conference in Concord in December 2014. The conference was sponsored by the Centralina Council of Governments, of which Granite Quarry is a member.
- $32 ($8 each) for Feather, Brinkley, former Town Manager Justin Price and Town Clerk Barbie Blackwell to attend the Rowan Municipal Association meeting in Rockwell Oct. 23, 2014.
- $100 ($25 each) toward registration for Feather, LaFevers, Price and former Alderwoman Mary Ponds to attend Town Hall Day in Raleigh March 18, 2015.
In all, those four items cost a total of $245.
A subsequent town document, dated May 27, 2015, shows this charge ($36.87) on the town credit card was denied as “an inappropriate charge.”
“The town has taken appropriate action to have these funds reimbursed,” the file said.
Three East Spencer elected officials traveled from 2014 to 2016, with the greatest distance traveled by Mayor Barbara Mallett. Mallett went to New York in December 2014 for a training conference at the Local Progress, a national municipal policy network for elected officials. The town reported a $292.90 reimbursement for Mallett’s Dec. 3 trip.
On Jan. 21, 2015, Alderwoman Phronice Johnson traveled to the Resource Center in Winston-Salem for a Royal Giants Park presentation. Johnson incurred $174.12 in travel expenses.
Alderman Otis Gibson traveled to the N.C. League of Municipalities in Raleigh for a North Carolina county and city manager luncheon at a cost of $119.64. During this luncheon, former town administrator Macon Sammons Jr. was honored with a life membership in the N.C. City & County Management Association.
East Spencer’s travel policy states that travel must be authorized, and the purpose, amount needed and length of the trip provided. Reimbursement for the use of a personal vehicle is provided at the IRS milage rate. The town covers the total cost of the use of the town vehicle and pays the cost of any public transportation. Aldermen are allowed to determine mode of travel.
China Grove, Cleveland, Rockwell and Faith had no travel reimbursements for the time period requested.
Reporters Shavonne Walker, Amanda Raymond, Josh Bergeron and Mark Wineka contributed to this article.
Coming Saturday: Rowan-Salisbury School System travel expenses.
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