Questions Surround County Spending
By Beth Milligan | Dec. 6, 2017
Questions surrounding the appropriateness of spending by multiple Grand Traverse County officials will be discussed at a county commission meeting tonight (Wednesday) at 5:30pm at the Governmental Center.
Commissioners will considering amending the county’s travel policy to address concerns raised by some board members about commission travel expenses and the amount of funds commissioners spend on conferences and other forms of travel on behalf of the county. Commissioner Dan Lathrop has publicly criticized Chair Carol Crawford for what he believes is her “overutilization” of the county’s budget for travel expenses. As of September, Crawford had spent more than $5,000 of the commission’s $16,000 2017 travel budget on five county-related trips; other commissioners had spent between $0 and $1,300.
“At what point do you say someone’s overdoing this?” says Lathrop. “Just because there’s $16,000 allotted doesn’t mean any one person needs to use it all. It’s obvious she’s utilizing this way more than the other commissioners and more than her share, as far as I’m concerned. I just think it’s too darn much…I want accountability and transparency.”
Crawford has defended the trips she’s taken as providing valuable opportunities to network with commissioners from other communities, as well as gain education and leadership training in areas that will affect Grand Traverse County. The county’s overall travel spending in 2017 is also in line with or below that of previous commissions, whose annual costs have ranged from $12,625 up to $27,172 over the past eight years.
“I’ve come back and reported back (to the board) on all but one of the conferences I went to, and the last one I didn’t because I had a sick mother,” says Crawford. “(These trips) aren’t out of the ordinary, they aren’t out of line.”
In an attempt to address Lathrop’s concerns, Crawford is proposing two possible options for commissioners to consider tonight that would amend the county’s travel policy. The first would require commissioners interested in traveling to submit a written request to the board chair for approval and afterward provide a detailed report on the conference they attended. Crawford, acknowledging that as the current chair that option would allow her to approve her own travel, also offered a second option of requiring that commission travel requests instead be submitted to the entire board for approval.
“Honestly, I think bringing it to the whole board might open up the chance for retribution, for somebody to vote no just because they don’t like somebody,” Crawford says. “I don’t think the policy needs to be changed, but (Lathrop does), and so to accommodate that I put the addendum to the policy on the agenda.”
Lathrop says he’s not satisfied with either option proposed by Crawford and plans to put forward his own suggested amendment. “The way I look at it, we’ve got $16,000 for our travel and educational expenses, and I think everyone should get one-seventh of that,” says Lathrop. “(Each commissioner) can go to conventions and travel for the county and use their fair share without any hindrance or onerous requirements. If they want to go past their allotted amount, they have to come to the board and ask to do that, and somebody else on the board has to agree to give up some of their money for that."
On a related topic of appropriate county spending, Crawford plans to ask commissioners tonight how they want to handle what she says was a misuse of county funds by former County Administrator Tom Menzel. Crawford says she uncovered over $1,000 Menzel spent on local meals on the taxpayers’ dime while she was researching her own travel expenses in response to Lathrop’s concerns. Menzel’s spending violated the county’s purchasing policy, Crawford believes.
“(The policy) is very clear you’re not allowed to spend money on meals when you’re not traveling,” Crawford says. “Things that are allowed are employee recognition receptions, or a meet-and-greet for a new administrator, or events where the public is invited. But to go out to lunch or dinner with one or two employees is not covered. Other employees 100 percent knew that was the rule.”
Crawford says she doesn’t believe Menzel’s spending was an “intentional misuse” of county funds, but says it still violated the purchasing policy. “I think he thought it was allowed, but he should have known what the policy was,” she says.
For his part, Menzel says both his employment contract and the county’s purchasing policy did allow him to pay for meals at which county business was being conducted. He believes Crawford is misinterpreting the policy. “I don’t agree with her assessment,” he says. “It’s a normal course of doing business. Every one of those meals had a receipt listing the individuals there and the business I was covering. I was trying to crowd as much business as I could into the day. It’s a non-issue.”
Menzel calls the issue of his spending a "deflection" from scrutiny of Crawford’s travel expenses and says commissioners should focus on “taking care of county business instead of playing these dysfunctional games.”
“I had almost no travel while I was at the county, I made $50,000 less (in salary) than the current administrator, and I spent a little over $1,000 in 20 months that was truly business based, compared to her $5,000 in trips,” says Menzel. “She’s trying to deflect from her own lack of watching the budget. The county has a lot of other issues they need to deal with. They need to start dealing with those.”