Just over two-and-a-half years ago, Tulsa's police helicopters couldn't get off the ground.
Budget cuts made fueling and maintaining the aircraft difficult to pay for, and the vehicles weren't used for eight months.
"But at the same time, there was a travel funding increase," recalled Councilor G.T. Bynum, who worked to make cuts in travel spending and other areas to ensure funding for the helicopters.
"Ever since that time, I've really made it a point to be a stickler on our employee travel," Bynum said.
Travel again came up during budget talks last year, when Mayor Dewey Bartlett pushed to increase funds for employee travel, citing the benefits of training opportunities, even those held outside Tulsa.
But Bynum described the discussion as revealing a lack of knowledge about city travel.
"It became very clear that no one actually knew what any of this money was being used for," Bynum said. While Bartlett made the case for more funding for training opportunities, Bynum found the documentation to be lacking.
In response to this concern, a new executive order signed last month requires new forms that must be filed for city employee travel. Bynum worked with City Manager Jim Twombly to develop the forms, which Bynum said will add a layer of information about the actual money spent on travel while also requiring employees to report what they gained from their travel experience.
In the twelve-month period ending June 30, the city spent $532,000 in travel-related expenses for employees in all city departments, with the money paying for 635 trips.
Bynum said he didn't have any knowledge of inappropriate spending by employees, but instead stressed how the new documentation will help better guide future budget decisions.
"The long-term benefit of this will be that it allows policymakers to have a better handle on how funds for employee travel are being used. Rather than us guessing and theorizing, we'll actually know," Bynum said.
Other public agencies have at times found themselves in hot water over travel spending practices.
A state audit released Jan. 22 of the Emergency Medical Services Authority criticized the agency for reimbursing expenses "the general public would consider unwarranted and extravagant," citing expenses the agency's Chief Executive Officer Stephen Williamson incurred such as spa services, subscriptions to satellite radio, and membership to the American Airlines Admirals Club, which allows travelers access to a lounge area at airports.
The audit also criticized more workaday flaws with the agency as it relates to travel. "In many cases we observed a lack of documentation justifying employee expenses; for example, travel reimbursements did not always explain the purpose of the trip or need for items purchased during the trip, and no written justification was provided for use of rental cars," auditors stated.
The new one-page "Post Travel Report" requires city employees to list "any certificates, licenses, or continuing education credits received," as well as to list "sessions, workshops, or training attended."
Asked how the city determines whether travel is necessary, city spokeswoman Michelle Allen provided a statement noting that such travel "is necessary to maintain required licenses, or other professional requirements."
The statement continued: "We also look at if the information the employee will bring back and if it will enhance city operations. We also look at if similar training can occur without travel and if so why is the travel necessary."
Planning for travel expenses varies by department. According to Allen, while most departments have a "travel and training" budget, others do not, and the existence of such budgets varies from year to year.
"Having said that, just because a department does not have money appropriated to a travel account at the beginning of the year, does not necessarily mean travel does not occur. The travel accounts are part of a larger series of accounts (other services) that 'draw' on each other," Allen wrote in an email. "This means a department director can use savings in other accounts to pay for travel and training that was not part of the original budget."
Travel for law enforcement training made up 18 percent of the city's total travel expenditures in fiscal year 2012. Such training also has a sort of built-in fundraising mechanism, however. By state law, Tulsa can use $2.00 from each court fine over $10.00, not including parking tickets, to fund such training.
The city's fiscal year begins July 1 and ends June 30.
Bynum noted that he successfully pushed to keep the city's travel spending from increasing in the current budget. The council voted 5-4 in June to keep budget funding constant, despite protestations from some councilors and Bartlett.
"If we can train our own employees ... we can avoid hiring more consultants," Bartlett told the council in June.
Bartlett did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the executive order, which was actually signed by Twombly acting as mayor pro tem.
The most recent executive order states that it applies to "all officers and employees appointed and supervised and removed by the Mayor of the City of Tulsa."
The policy does not cover the city council, which has its own travel policy.
In the 2012-2013 budget approved by the City Council in June, $90,000 was approved for the mayor's office for "Other Services/Charges," a category "used to account for the purchase of contractual services and other intangible products such as security, temporary employment, professional and landscaping services, leases, utilities, and employee training and travel," according to the city's official budget document.
The City of Tulsa did not respond by press time to an open records request submitted Jan. 24 seeking documents detailing travel spending by the Mayor's Office in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
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