LELAND, NC (WECT) - Many of you have noticed that we've been keeping a close eye on public officials' spending over the last year in our "Following Your Money" series. As a result, some of you have been calling us with tips about public agencies that are not spending your money as carefully as you would like.
One of those recent tips prompted us to ask for financial records at H2GO – the Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer Authority.
What we found ranged from $7,100 in charges to Azalea Limousine Services, to first-class airfare for one of the commissioners, to alcoholic beverages and 40 percent tips at restaurants – all paid for with public money.
Our questions about those purchases have prompted the individuals involved to reimburse the agency for many of the charges in question. H2GO officials also updated their travel policy this week to ban many of the kinds of purchases we uncovered in our investigation.
H2GO was quick to share hundreds of pages of financial documents we requested. Their executive director and a long time board member also agreed to sit down for an on-camera interview with us, which is a noteworthy effort at transparency when some public officials here have refused to comment after we raised similar questions about their spending.
Carl Antos has served on the H2GO board for 10 years, and says his mission as a commissioner is largely to keep costs down for local residents.
Antos gave several examples of his efforts to save money in the course of his work at H2GO, including booking business travel through discount travel brokers. But on several occasions, while traveling with his wife to both in and out-of-state conferences in recent years for his work with H2GO, he has also requested to be reimbursed for meals that included alcoholic beverages.
"Generally, people have either a glass of wine or a beer with their meal. I wouldn't charge for a bar bill, that's for sure, but I never even gave it a thought that having a beer [with dinner] was questionable," Antos explained when we asked about the drinks on his receipts.
Antos says since we questioned the charges, he's considered the fact that some residents whose water fees cover H2GO expenses don't drink alcohol, and wouldn't approve of public money going to pay for someone else to drink. That prompted Antos to reimburse the authority for his beverages, and he said he'd modify his reimbursement requests in the future.
"Any other time I'm away, I certainly will not charge something that I consider personal," Antos said.
To be clear, there is nothing in state law that specifically prohibits public money from being used to buy alcoholic beverages. But as a matter of practice, many public agencies have policies that prohibit it.
"I think common sense would say that it's probably not a good idea," H2GO Executive Director Bob Walker told us.
H2GO Commissioner Poe Butler requested reimbursement for his $70 dinner on a 2012 trip to Asheville that included 2 margaritas and a $39 filet mignon. He also submitted receipts for his $24 bar bill in Louisville in 2013.
In addition, Butler used public money to upgrade to Business Elite and First Class on his $1200 flight to a National Rural Water conference in Seattle in 2014.
Butler did not personally respond to our questions about these charges, but H2GO Public Information Officer Doug Hewett told us that the H2GO travel policy does not have explicit language that requires economy travel.
During our interview, Antos indicated that Mr. Butler was injured in an accident several years ago, and the injury still causes him some discomfort. He said Butler may have requested the airline upgrade for a larger seat to accommodate his injury.
"Typically, the commissioners book their own travel and then submit the reimbursements to us," explained Walker. The employee travel policy, which sets limits on spending, did not apply to commissioners until now.
We noticed charges for a number of dinners in June at restaurants in Morganton. Itemized receipts were not submitted for the meals, and more than once, the bill included a 40% tip. Walker explained he'd allowed 2 employees traveling to Morganton for training to take his H2GO credit card to cover their out-of-pocket expenses.
"I think it was just a lack of understanding on their part. They were young and they just didn't realize what they should have been tipping, and that was part of the retraining or the counseling that I gave to them when they got back – look, it's 15-20%," Walker said. He also emphasized that itemized receipts were typically required when making purchases with H2GO credit cards.
One of the only charges we questioned that H2GO is defending as appropriate is $7,100 to Azalea Limousine Service in the summer of 2014. That covered the cost of a small bus to take 12-15 representatives from H2GO, the Town of Leland, and the Town of Belville to Kill Devil Hills on two separate occasions.
H2GO is hoping to build a reverse osmosis plant so they can have their own water source - independent from Brunswick County - to supply water to their customers and control costs. They said the bus trip allowed them to show elected officials a reverse osmosis plant in Kill Devil Hills similar to what they want to build here, in hopes of winning zoning approval from town leaders.
When asked if there might have been a way to take officials there that wouldn't cost $7,100, we were told the mini bus price was reasonable, and the bus was also equipped with audio visual equipment that helped H2GO officials make their pitch to town officials.
The new travel policy, adopted on October 13, bans the purchase of alcohol with H2GO money. It also prohibits first-class air travel, but does allow upgrades to business class travel on non-stop flights longer than 5 hours at H2GO's discretion. Meal expenses are now capped at $50 a day, including tax and tips, and H2GO funds can no longer be used to cover expenses for spouses or family members traveling with an H2GO representative.
The travel policy now applies to commissioners as well as H2GO employees.