'Networking' costs city

 Jeremy Styron News-Herald.net
Between expenses related to recertification programs, financial classes, technology and software training, and requisite travel, food and hotel expenses, running a small municipality like Lenoir City doesn’t come cheap.

Lenoir City budgeted $48,760 for training and travel expenses for fiscal year 2014, with the largest appropriations coming from the fire and police departments with allocations of $14,400 and $10,500 respectively, according to an open records request the News-Herald filed recently.

Richard Martin, Lenoir City fire chief, said he typically attends the annual Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association conference in Nashville, while he and one or two other officials with the fire department attend quarterly meetings in either Pigeon Forge, Jackson, Franklin or elsewhere. The fire department conferences are geared toward leadership training and development.

Martin said being able to converse and collaborate with other fire officials was beneficial in staying informed about the latest equipment and technology.

“It’s very important,” Martin said about the conferences. “Just the networking alone with fire chiefs across the state is very critical.”

In addition to attending conferences and periodically sending local firefighters to the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy for training, emergency response officials also conduct local drills to keep their skills sharp, Martin said. He and one other firefighter are planning to attend an upcoming spring conference in Gatlinburg.

Firefighters are required to take 240 hours of training per year, he said, noting it is a considerable amount.

Lenoir City Fire Department spent $4,294 on training and travel expenses between July 2013 and early 2014, while Lenoir City Police Department expended $3,722 on travel-related expenses and $1,106 on employee education and training during that same period.

Police Chief Don White said officers require 40 hours of annual certified training to meet minimum requirements, noting that officer training is important to remain a step ahead of criminals.

“We have to stay on top of our job,” White said. “... We carry the most liability on our shoulders because of the nature of our job. ... I wish we had a budget that would allow for more training. We have a very small training and travel budget for 30-plus people.”

The police department allocated money to attend the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police in 2013. In 2012, White was invited to a national conference, which took place in San Diego, and he attended the national event for the first time since coming to Lenoir City in 2006.

Maggie Hunt, assistant recorder/treasurer with Lenoir City, said the San Diego trip, including registration and travel, cost a little less than $1,700.

“I ended up skipping a couple of my regular TACP meetings to try to offset that cost,” White said.

White said department personnel benefit from attending conferences because of networking opportunities and being able to glean information from fellow law enforcement officials.

“Being from a small town like Lenoir City, it’s amazing what I’ve been able to gain” through those connections, White said.

As part of the next highest training and travel allocation, the city appropriated $6,000 each for the court and financial departments.

Hunt said that each year the city’s two certified municipal financial officers — herself and City Recorder/Treasurer Jim Wilburn — have to log 24 hours of training to keep their permit. In addition, all of the city’s clerks are certified through the state and have to get recertified every three years.

Two of the city’s clerks will travel to Murfreesboro this fall for certification, and Hunt and Wilburn plan to attend a capital assets class in a couple weeks in Knoxville. The city also set aside $780 in February for software training in Gatlinburg.

For travel expenses, the city pays a gas reimbursement of $0.56 per mile as per the U.S. General Services Administration rate for city officials who use their own vehicles. The city also pays a per diem rate for training and travel expenses.

City employees must be out of town a full business day to get per diem pay for meal and hotel reimbursements. Rates are based on the maximum lodging rate in each metropolitan area as established by the U.S. General Services Administration.

Hunt said each department outlines travel plans beforehand during each budget cycle.

“We have to have their agendas and everything, and then we know where they’re going,” Hunt said. “We’re supposed to know all travel.”

While the codes enforcement office allocated $4,500, other departments set aside $2,000 or less for training and travel.

Steve Harrelson, Lenoir City Parks and Recreation director, said an annual Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association was about the extent of his department’s travel expenses.

Harrelson said the conferences were beneficial for numerous reasons.

“Not only do you learn a lot at the classes and keep up to date on the latest trends and so forth, but you also have some time for networking and talk to other departments and other directors and find out what they’re doing in their departments and what they’ve tried,” Harrelson said. “What’s worked and what’s not. Just new ideas, just trying to keep things fresh and start new stuff for Lenoir City.”

Like Martin, Harrelson said networking was an important aspect of state conferences.

“Networking with folks from the state, the people that control the grant money, the people you need to have a relationship with in order to hopefully get a little help with grants and so forth when you apply for them” is beneficial, Harrelson said. “That definitely means a lot to Lenoir City, I think, when you can reap a lot of financial benefit from these conferences.”

In addition to routine travel for city departments, the open records request also revealed a few standout individual purchases, including meals at Subway and Little Caesars for prisoners who were working on the SunTrust bank building renovations, along with a restaurant tab of $2,006.36 in February 2013 at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Nashville. On the purchase order, the event was described as a “dinner with legislators.” The documents did not indicate a reason for the meeting.

The Morton’s meal, which included 19 dinners, desserts, drinks, gratuity and a banquet fee, included Lenoir City Council members, Lenoir City Utilities Board officials, Mayor Tony Aikens, Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston. Sixteen filet mignons were purchased at $83 apiece.