Double Dipping? Commissioners get reimbursed for meals already provided at conference

Double Dipping? Commissioners get reimbursed for meals already provided at conference
Commissioners said there was no spending problem requiring a solution. (Source: WECT)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WECT) - The National Association of Counties held its annual convention in Charlotte this summer, and all five counties in our viewing area sent delegates.

As our "Following your Money" series continues, we're taking a look at what you spent to send them there.

New Hanover County

New Hanover County sent three delegates: County Manager Chris Coudriet, along with Commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple.

For the most part, they stuck to the county travel policy, requesting per Diem reimbursements for daily meal expenses, rather than charging pricey meals to county credit cards as some county leaders have in years past.

But there was one notable exception - not because of the cost, but because it's directly against the county travel policy.

The $490 conference registration fee included two meals: lunch on July 11 and breakfast on July 12. But on their travel expense reports, Zapple and Barfield asked to be reimbursed for both of these meals, too.

We asked them if this might be an oversight, and if so, would they be reimbursing the county for the small amount in question - $25 for each commissioner.

We were told it was not an oversight, and that both commissioners had special dietary preferences that meant the conference-provided meals were not acceptable.

Specifically, Barfield told us he was on a diet, and Zapple said he has "enjoyed a vegetarian diet (with some fish) for the past 25 years."

When we first asked Barfield about his conference expenses, he responded that it must be a "slow news day." Barfield explained that he met a fellow commissioner at the national conference who used to be a news anchor in a major market and even worked with Brian Williams, who said they don't cover news like this in big markets.

When we responded that Wilmington was a mid-sized market and that our research indicated our viewers were interested in how public officials spend tax money, Barfield said he was well aware we were not a big market news station.

Barfield also said he met commissioners at the conference from other parts of the country who make $70,000 - $80,000 a year for their work with the county, and it was silly to question him over such a small expense.

But this isn't about the relatively small amount of money. It's the fact that Zapple and Barfield charged taxpayers for meals, when other county employees would not be allowed to do so in this situation.

According to New Hanover County's travel policy: "When a meal is provided as part of a conference or meeting, or included with lodging (hotel), including continental breakfast, per Diem will not be paid for that particular meal, regardless if the employee chooses to eat that meal or not."

While county employees are bound by this rule while traveling on county business, the commissioners voted to exclude themselves from having to follow the policy earlier this year. However, they did agree to follow the policy voluntarily.

We asked Zapple what advice he would give to other county employees who have special dietary preferences, or even medically dictated dietary restrictions. He responded that he was "not comfortable speculating or offering advice on hypothetical situations."

Zapple and Barfield were able to achieve some savings by driving to the conference together. The total cost for the New Hanover County delegation came to $5,603, including their rooms at the Westin, food and transportation.

Bladen County

The five person Bladen County delegation spent $7,349, the most of any of our local counties during the conference.

Most of that was for $209/night hotel rooms at the Westin. Bladen County Commissioners are allowed $33 for meals each day, and the commissioners all stayed within that limit.

Other than the overall expense, the only thing worth noting out of Bladen County is that all of the delegates drove separately to Charlotte, which cost the county almost $900 in mileage reimbursements. The assistant to the county manager said that carpooling has occurred in the past, and she wasn't sure why it wasn't done this time.

Pender County

Pender County sent three delegates to the conference, including Utilities Director Michael Mack and County Manager Randell Woodruff. Newly appointed Commissioner Demetrice Keith also attended the conference.

Most of their charges were mundane. The only ones that we found notable were the room service charges for Keith. She had $134 in room service charges all together, $74 of that in a single day.

Keith did not provide receipts to the county, but at our request, the county got duplicate receipts from the hotel which show a $27 room service charge her first morning at the conference for French toast, sausage and orange juice.

The next morning she had a $44 breakfast delivered to her room and a $30 dinner that night which consisted of chicken tenders and red velvet cake.

On her final morning at the hotel, Keith spent $31 to have breakfast delivered to her room. That was the same morning where breakfast was already provided as part of Keith's $555 registration fee.

Pender County employees are required to adhere to a per Diem policy which allows $40 per day for meals during travel for County business, but because Keith is a county commissioner, she is not bound by those guidelines.

The grand total for the three person Pender County delegation: $4,762.

Columbus County

Several Columbus County Commissioners elected to share a room again for this conference, keeping the cost of the trip down considerably.  Commission Chairman Trent Burroughs, and Commissioners Charles McDowell and Edwin Russ spent five nights at the Westin for $1,164.

Their meal expenses were well below per Diem limits established by the federal government, just $224 for all three over the course of the entire conference.

Columbus County Commissioner Amon McKenzie had planned to attend the conference, but had to cancel. McKenzie wrote the county a check to cover the cost of his $490 registration fee and a $172 non-refundable hotel room charge.

The Columbus delegation spent $3,007 in all during the six day trip.

Brunswick County

Brunswick County spent $2,989, the least of all of our local delegations, primarily because they sent fewer people.

Commissioners Marty Cooke and Randy Thompson attended. They paid for many meals out of their own pocket and also kept costs down by staying at a less expensive hotel than some of the other local delegates.

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