County ends travel expense policy

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Carter County has ended a travel expense policy for one county office after a state audit reported discrepancies in travel payments made to an employee resulted in a cash shortage of $1,200.
   Conducted by the division of County Audit under the state Comptroller, the audit reads that the county's general fund had a cash shortage of $1,200 as of December 18, 2002.
   This cash shortage occurred because an employee of the Assessor of Property's office received travel reimbursements of $400 per month for July, August and September 2002 when the employee was on leave status and did not incur any travel expenses, according to the audit.
   "That is something we are working on right now," said Jason Cody, the county's director of Finance, on Tuesday. "We should have it resolved within the next month."
   Since this employee was on leave beginning in June 2002 and incurred no reimbursable travel expense after that, he should not have received the travel reimbursement payments totaling $1,200, the audit reads. The audit further reads that the employee -- unnamed in the audit -- did not file a doctor's certificate for extended leave, as required by the county's personnel policies.
   This employee, as well as other employees of the Property Assessor's Office, routinely received a monthly travel allowance (reimbursement) for use of their personal vehicles for county business.
   Personnel policies of Carter County require that employees who are absent from work for more than three consecutive days file a doctor's statement certifying they are unable to work.
   The main point was whether these questioned payments were travel expenses that required documentation or whether the travel allowance was actually a salary supplement.
   "It wasn't clearly spelled out in the policies we had -- it was fuzzy, gray area there," said Cody.
   A change in county administration may have led to a misunderstanding of the prior travel payments to an employee in the Office of the Property Assessor, he added in his written response to the audit.
   Cody said another complicating factor was that the employee in question was still employed by the county; however, he was on leave during the period in question. In retrospect, we acknowledge that these payments were made in error, Cody states in his response to the audit's finding.
   The county purchased two vehicles for use by the office's employees in lieu of the travel allowance policy. "We ended the policy effective the first of this year," Cody said. The vehicle purchases will be more cost-effective due to the fact that the county was spending $13,200 in travel allowances annually for the office, according to Cody's response.
   As to the current $1,200 cash shortage, the county responded it was exploring the following options: Filing claim with the county's insurance carrier -- liability errors and omissions; filing a claim against assessor of property's bond; seeking reimbursement from the employee or going to County Commission for approval of the expenditure.
   In their response, the county "agree(d) that the policies in the Carter County Employee Handbook were not applied appropriately in this case."
   The lone material weakness cited in the audit was the county's failure to inventory, value, and record its general fixed assets (buildings, equipment, etc.), as required by generally accepted accounting principles.
   The state's Governmental Accounting Standards Board has adopted Statement 34 -- referred to in accounting circles as GASB 34. Statement 34 will become effective in the county for the year ending June 30, 2003. The statement places an even greater emphasis on the need to maintain general fixed asset records.
   Auditors recommended the county inventory, value, and record its general fixed assets in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles.
   In the county's response to the finding, Cody said the county was currently implementing the Financial Management Act of 1981 in addition to implementing GASB 34.
   "It may be easier and more reasonable to implement GASB 34 after the county's accounting functions are centralized," Cody stated in the response.