Many top Knox leaders say filing for fuel under reimbursement system saves money, others say it makes no difference
Moments after he first took office in September 2010, incoming Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett eliminated the controversial auto allowance policy for executive branch department heads and top ranking staffers.
He promised that the move would save taxpayers roughly $50,000 a year as county workers under his purview would instead use the same template under the federal government's reimbursement system – currently 55 cents per mile – to cover gas costs to travel inside the county.
Records, however, show that the move actually saved closer to $76,000 on average each of the past three years. Other elected county officials and offices embraced the move.
But not everyone.
There are still 18 holdouts funded by county dollars, including the 11-member Knox County Commission and a number of fee officers, for example, according to finance records. Combined, they receive $81,200 to drive inside the county. That's almost the same amount of money the county paid to a combined 180 employees who filled out travel reimbursement forms in 2013.
The school system also has been reluctant to let go of the allowances with some 160 employees receiving a combined $216,540 in allowances. That also includes Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre, who gets $9,600 annually – the largest travel allowance of all local leaders.
The superintendent said that overall the school system's program "is actually a pretty good deal for the Knox County schools."
"You can use the model that's been created in the business community, and . . . they reimburse for mileage, and that's what we've done," said Burchett, who has control over only the executive branch – not the commission, fee offices or school system. "I think there's more accountability there because it does show that you went from point A to point B, and any 14-year-old kid can get on Mapquest and double check those numbers."
This WBIR Channel 10 investigation focuses only on local mileage. Those who receive the allowances also are able to get reimbursed for gas costs if they travel outside of Knox County's 508 square miles.
The 10News analysis also does not factor in gas costs incurred mostly by the Sheriff's Office, since the department operates under a contract with Pilot that pays whichever is cheaper: either 9 cents off the pump price or a 1 percent markup off the pipeline that Pilot actually pays. The fuel contracts costs the county anywhere from $90,000 to $120,000 a month.
'KIND OF LIKE FREE MONEY'
Burchett's predecessor, Mike Ragsdale, put in place travel allowances for 18 executive branch workers who did little driving, like the human resources and finance directors. Combined, the employees received almost $80,000 a year in travel allowances.
That's what Burchett immediately cut.
This past fiscal year only two of the employees who received allowances under the former county mayor filed for travel reimbursement. Purchasing Director Hugh Holt, who at one time received almost $5,800 a year, put in for $800 in reimbursement. Likewise, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Bataille, who also previously received about $5,800 yearly, got back $3,220 in fiscal year 2013, which ended in June, records show.
"It was just common sense to try this," the mayor said.
Burchett, who usually drives himself to events, put in for $4,050 in mileage reimbursement this year – second only to Mike Wheatley, a field auditor in the Trustee's Office, who claimed almost $5,000.
And other are taking the same approach.
The county's five sessions court judges each quit accepting a $4,100-a-year allowance in 2011 as did then-Election Administrator Greg Mackay ($6,500 annually) and County Clerk Foster Arnett Jr ($8,400).
"I didn't think that it was really justified," said Arnett. "I still get reimbursed, but I just saw it the same way the public sees it – kind of like free money. I didn't feel good about it."
Arnett, who filed for about $65 in reimbursements in FY 2013, also cut travel allowances for five of his employees a few years ago.
"Altogether, we've saved $50,000 a year," he said.
Additionally, then-Trustee John Duncan III and 11 others in his office also in 2011 started filing under the reimbursement system. Each at the time received $5,400 a year.
Neither Mackay's successor, Cliff Rodgers, nor interim Trustee Craig Leuthold accepts a travel allowance.
"I think it's fairer if you reimburse someone when they use their own vehicle rather than using an across-the-board number," Leuthold said.
SOME SAY ALLOWANCES WORK
Officials polled by WBIR say that the allowances were in place well before they took office. But, during the past few years, some local leaders say they have cut them for their employees, but not necessarily for themselves.
For example, Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey through 2009 had five supervisors on the payroll who each received $6,000 annually.
McCroskey cut those, but still keeps her check.
"I think you can end up spending more time filling out the mileage form than anything else," she said. "I'm on the road a lot, and I think everyone is, if they get one."
McCroskey, whose job mostly keeps her in the City County Building, declined to say exactly where her job required her to travel to locally.
But, records show she receives $8,400 annually—the equivalent of driving 1,200 miles a month under the federal reimbursement template.
COMPARISON: A look at travel allowances and reimbursements
Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist, who gets $5,220 annually, said she drives the 6.2 mile route from the downtown City County Building to the Division Street juvenile court "one to three times a day," and goes to Nashville for conferences.
Quist, though, said she doesn't claim mileage when she travels out of town, although she could.
Property Assessor Phil Ballard has kept his allowance since taking office in 2008, but did cut it half, down to $3,600 a few years ago.
"I did it in the spirit of the agreement after Mayor Burchett came in," he said. "I think it's a realistic figure that I would pay out of my pocket."
The 11 county commissioners also benefit from the travel allowance program, with each getting $325 a month.
"There's no question that commissioners use it," said board Chairman Brad Anders.
Commissioner Dave Wright agreed, adding that members spend more time crisscrossing their districts now than prior to 2010 when the board had 19 members.
Commission Vice Chairman R. Larry Smith said the board members are "the ones out there where the rubber meets the road on a daily basis."
'COST EFFICIENT, COST EFFECTIVE'
Records show that 160 school employees – mostly directors, executive directors, instructional coaches, supervisors, social workers, and specialists – receive a combined $216,540 in annual travel allowance.
The allowances range from a $500 for a social worker to Superintendent McIntyre's $9,600 a year. The nine school board members each get $3,900 yearly.
Overall, though, most of the school employees who do receive an allowance get $1,000 to $1,275 annually.
The allowances are based on a rate of $5 per contract day, said school spokeswoman Melissa Ogden. The Board of Education negotiated the superintendent's allowance and it's included in his contract. The board's allowance is set by the county charter and mirrors the commission.
Other employees fill out reimbursement forms. Those employees – some 394 – were refunded a combined $247,240, according to finance records for FY 2013.
Ogden said employees who travel "between schools on a day-to-day basis throughout the week" are reimbursed for travel, and employees "who have moderate travel as part of their job requirement, but the travel might not be on an everyday basis" get an allowance.
McIntyre said the system has been in place for 20 years, and called it "a fairly reasonable cost efficient, cost effective way to acknowledge the work that our employees do in supporting our schools."
The superintendent said he visits most of the system's 89 schools each year, and in some years visits all of them. He said he also makes "a lot of trips back and forth to Nashville to represent the school system" to talk with state leaders.
He receives $9,600 a year - the equivalent of driving 1,450 miles a month under the federal reimbursement template.
McIntyre said he didn't know how many miles he actually travels each month but said "it's a lot."
"On a typical day, I am visiting schools, I am going to events, going back and forth to meetings in various places. I'm frequently on the road doing different things," he said, pointing out that he doesn't seek reimbursement for out-of-county mileage and relies solely on the allowance.
The school system has not discussed plans to change its method, he added.