Aggressive oversight by Spokane County’s internal auditor and its top manager have cut employee travel by 22 percent in three years.
It’s a rare breath of positive financial news for a county mired in a budget crunch triggered by booming salary costs and stagnant sales tax revenues.
Total travel among county employees in 1992 was nearly $400,000. Last year, it dropped to $311,302.
County Commissioner Steve Hasson credited Internal Auditor Vicky Dalton and Chief Administrative Officer Jim Lindow.
Dalton developed a standardized travel form that employees must submit in advance to ensure a better accounting of trips.
While many employees, including managers, still have trouble filling out the form properly, officials said the process is getting cleaner.
Lindow reviews travel expenses each month and has impressed on department heads the need to stay lean.
“They’re both real task masters,” Hasson said. “You have to fill out all these forms, and you really have to justify all travel expenditures now.”
Hasson said he remembers a few years ago when the county’s 1,600 employees took 1,500 trips a year.
“That’s pretty obscene,” he said.
Dalton, a certified public accountant hired seven years ago as the county’s money hawk, worries that managers might have done too good a job of controlling their travel budgets.
Last year, the county had $120,000 left over in its travel budget.
“Maybe we’re being too conservative,” Dalton said. “Maybe there’s training people need to go to. But it shows that the managers over the years have made a concerted effort to keep expenditures under control.”
While Lindow said he’s impressed with the reductions, he expects them to drop further.
As for employee training, he said department heads are in the best position to determine necessities versus luxuries.
“They’ve been comfortable with the cuts we’ve made,” said Lindow, who was named to the top management post in January 1995 after starting as a county probation officer in 1971.
Even the biggest globetrotting agency, the Sheriff’s Department, had a travel surplus in 1995, spending $46,000 of its $52,000.
The prosecutor’s office spent $21,418 out of $25,500.
Dalton said travel by both departments involves extraditing prisoners and flying in witnesses - required services over which the county has no control.
The commissioners’ office spent $4,632 out of $7,304 on travel. Most of that was for a controversial trip Hasson and Commissioner Phil Harris took last July to North Carolina to attend a law enforcement conference.
After the conference, the two visited Harris’ brother on the Carolina coast but did not charge the county for the rental car to get there.
In all, including Sheriff John Goldman’s portion of the trip, the conference costs taxpayers $4,334.
Harris said it was more than worth it by generating new ideas about how to put inmates to work at no cost.
But he and Hasson applaud department heads and elected officials for cutting their own travel. By serving as role models, they have encouraged their staffs to make do with less trips, the commissioners said.
“Travel was out of control before,” Hasson said. “I now encourage people to pick the phone up and call people instead of traveling all over the state.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Spokane County employee travel expenses