Northampton County Controller Stephen Barron is calling on County Council to pass stricter policies on employee travel after taxpayers wound up paying for employees to attend seminars in Las Vegas and New Orleans last year.
The travel expenses, which included a pair of two-night stays at four-star hotels in Las Vegas and New Orleans, helped push the Department of Human Relation’s staff development costs from $5,749.35 in 2015 to to $56,758.15 last year, an 887 percent increase. Barron’s report incorrectly reported it as an 987 percent increase.
Barron noted the department’s training costs in 2017 are already on a similar path. So far this year, the department of about a dozen employees has rung up $19,906 in staff development through April 12. The expenses, Barron noted, are not fraud — they were signed off on by Executive John Brown.
“The spending is out of control, and it needs to stop,” Barron said.
Brown dismissed the concerns, saying the rising costs were part of his effort to revamp the department, which is under its third director in three years. Even with the sharp increase in spending, the county is still falling short when it comes to keeping its employees educated in best practices and recent improvements in technology.
“I actually believe we are not doing enough employee training,” Brown said.
As part of an effort to reduce costs, the county has replaced print job advertisements with an online job application system called NeoGov. The county acquired the software in 2015, and the trip to Las Vegas was a national training conference that had representatives from more than 300 local governments. The county determined it was worth sending employees to the seminars there, though Brown was unsure if there were closer options.
Along with questioning the out-of-state travel, Barron also questioned the effectiveness of the training. The county paid $1,297 in airfare and hotel rooms to send an employee to New Orleans for training in worker’s compensation, the memo showed. The same employee is scheduled to attend another worker’s compensation seminar in Harrisburg this June.
In his memo, Barron advised council to pass an ordinance requiring council approval for employees to travel more than 100 miles on nonroutine county business. The proposal, which is modeled after a law in Allegheny County, would still allow employees to attend training in New York, Philadelphia and Harrisburg without council oversight, Barron said. He also suggested the county mirror the Army and put controls in place limiting how much employees can charge the county for hotel rooms.
In the past, the county has sent employees for training nearby, avoiding the cost of cross-country travel. Given the size of the department and the accreditation its employees must maintain, Barron estimated the department could reasonably accumulate training costs of about $12,000 a year.