Holsclaw, county officials speak out on travel policies

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   In the Carter County Property Assessor's office there should be a small-change jar with a sign which states: "Missing Money Found."
   Actually, there was no money missing from the assessor's office to begin with. The real issue was a procedural problem, according to Carter County Executive Dale Fair.
   Regardless, at last Monday's commission meeting, some county commissioners said the payment of a travel allowance to an assessor's office employee while the employee was not actually on travel, "cast a cloud" over the office. Commissioners Tom Bowers, District 4, and Al Meehan, District 2, requested the district attorney's office look over the county audit prepared by Finance Director Jason Cody, who identified the deficiency, and issue an opinion.
   Fair said the assessor's office under administrator John Holsclaw was "a very well-run department which, over time, returned money to the General Fund. There's no cloud over the office and never has been a cloud."
   Holsclaw, Fair, Cody, and County Attorney George Dugger met with the Star on Friday to discuss a proposal made at the April 21 County Commission meeting.
   According to Dugger, an employee who worked in the assessor's office was paid $400 a month in travel expenses for using his personal vehicle on the job. "That was the policy at that time," Dugger said. The employee earned $4,800 a year."
   When the employee took advantage of his accrued comp time and vacation days and left office three months early, he continued to receive the travel allotment along with his salary."
   According to Cody, "It was a bad policy."
   Fair said that when he heard about it, at first, he personally didn't agree. "But I understand that it was a policy. Whether written or not, it's been done for many, many years; and there's nothing wrong with it.
   "There are 700 miles of roads in Carter County. These guys are all over the county all of the time, and some of the driveways are not in great shape," Fair said. The vehicle would be subjected to above-normal wear and tear. The employee was responsible for paying his own gas, insurance, vehicle maintenance and repairs.
   In return, according to Fair, the understanding was that the employee would receive a travel allowance: "We'll just pay you a supplement to take your car up in the hollows and up the driveways. Yes, you're going to have more damage ... but we'll supplement you." That was the thought behind the allowance.
   The bottom line, according to Fair, is there's nothing wrong or illegal about it. "You might not agree. You might have a little philosophical difference with that. That's fine. That's why the policy was changed. It was just an accounting procedure that was not the best. And it's an accounting procedure that has been changed."
   Under the former policy, according to Dugger, an employee received a flat amount of money for travel expenses. "It started with $100 and eventually went to $400," he said. "Now the policy is the county's got two cars over there that they travel all over the county in and make their inspections."
   Fair said that in the event both vehicles are in use and a staff member has to drive and use their personal vehicle for travel, they have to log in and do an itemized expense report.
   Holsclaw recommended several months before leaving office that the county purchase its own vehicles and do away with the monthly allowance. The new policy was put into effect in January before he announced his retirement Feb. 21.
   Holsclaw said that, over the years, when one considered the travel supplement vs. what the employee actually spent on travel, the employee ended up losing money. He told county officials: "He's been a good employee. He's brought in thousands and millions of dollars to this county. If we can come back and have some type of way that we can pay him legally, let's do that. If there's a problem with that, I'll give it to him out of my pocket.'
   "Well, Mr. Cody did some research on this, evidently, and he said, 'Yes, you can legally do that.' "
   Holsclaw said he found recent events upsetting "because I've been legal and above board, and I think I ran a good office. ... My family is pretty upset at this thing. I've turned into a 'crook' here in the last three or four weeks. I know people make jokes out of it, but it's very serious to me."
   Because the state conducts a county audit every year and recently found the assessor's office to be in compliance, county officials say there is no reason to pay for another audit, as suggested by Commissioner Meehan, especially since the assessor's office does not handle any money.
   "I just hate that this has happened, and I regret that I had to come forward and make a comment, but in defense of myself and my family, I felt this was the appropriate time to do it," Holsclaw said. "I hate that some of the people who are making statements concerning a 'cloud' being over the office of assessor are not fully informed.
   "I regret this has happened, and I hope this will bring a closure to the misunderstandings. Carter County can be proud of having one of the top assessor's offices in the state of Tennessee and outstanding employees," Holsclaw said.