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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Barron: Stronger Internal Controls Needed For NorCo Staff Training and Travel

Controller Steve Barron
What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas, they say. But word that two Human Resources staffers went on a junket there, and to the Mirage Hotel no less, is just one of many disturbing details disclosed by the information I've received from Northampton County in response to a Right-to-Know.

It disturbs NorCo Controller Steve Barron, too. Below is a memo he sent to County Council yesterday, calling for greater internal controls over staff training and travel instead of an out-of control county that has authorized trips to Vegas,New Orleans, Atlantic City's Harrah Resort and other posh destinations. Specifically, he suggests that Council should approve all travel requests that are over 100 miles away.  

As Controller, I have the duty to audit the fiscal transactions of all agencies that receive or disburse county funds, and report to you and the Executive if I determine that the potential for waste or abuse exists. I am empowered to audit the account of any agency, at any time, without interference and on my own initiative. The purpose of this report is to put you on notice that the potential for waste and abuse exists with staff development training and travel expenses, demonstrating a need for stronger internal controls.

Year-end budget numbers for 2016 reveal that the budget for staff development in the Department of Human Resources jumped from $5,749.35 to a staggering $56,758.15. This is an increase of 987% in one year (Exhibit 1).

I reviewed other county departments to compare those costs of staff development and training within the county (Exhibit 2). As you will see, the jail had the highest cost for staff development and training, but that is because the County was addressing drastic staff shortages and the training was mostly done in-house. The jail now has filled 196 of its 200 positions.

Human Resources did a lot of training away from the courthouse campus. To prevent potential waste and abuse and conserve taxpayer dollars, internal controls are needed to ensure that training and travel expenses are not abused.

As an example, I refer to an airfare charge for a two-night trip to the NeoGov User Conference (October 12-14, 2016) in Las Vegas (Exhibit 3). There is a hotel bill for that time period for two employees at the Mirage Hotel. There were two rooms purchased as one male and one female traveled on the trip. Conferences like this are meant more for networking and less about training. NeoGov was brought online in late 2014 and used through 2015. This conference was not so much about training and seems to be excessive if not outright abusive. The total cost for the airfare, conference fees and hotels was $2,434.32. This total does not include meals. This seems excessive when the Department of Defense only allows $102 max for a hotel and a $166 dollar per diem total in Las Vegas (Exhibit 4).

A second example is an airfare charge that came two months after the Las Vegas trip. This trip was for a Worker’s Compensation Conference in New Orleans, LA. Two male Human Resource staff members were scheduled to go on this trip, but only one went. Interestingly, this staff member is one of the two who had just traveled to Las Vegas two months earlier. He stayed from 11/29/2016 until 12/2/2016 in New Orleans (Exhibit 6). The cost for airfare and hotel on this trip was $1,297.68. This cost does not include fees for the conference or meals. The Department of Defense per diem rate in New Orleans is $192-220, and the funds expended by the County appear to have been in excess of that allotment.

This same staffer is currently registered for a Harrisburg Worker’s Compensation Conference in June. This begs the question whether the New Orleans travel was really necessary as there are clearly conferences much closer. Also, how many training conferences does this employee need to be proficient in Worker’s Compensation?

The Controller’s office uses software for data analysis called ACL. This software has a user conference as well. In 2017 it is in Nashville, TN. While I would love to send my staff to this conference, it is would be a poor use of taxpayer money. We have instead formed a user group with several members of the Institute of Internal Auditors and that group meets at PP&L on a regular basis.

I am sure there are users of NeoGov in close geographic proximity to Northampton County where the Human Resource Office can apply a similar strategy to save taxpayer money. The next NeoGov User Conference is at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in October of 2017. It is my hope that Council can work to convince the County Executive that sending people this year would be a waste of taxpayer money.

I decided to check what other counties do when travel expenses are approved. In Lehigh County it is largely a function of the department head to anticipate training and travel during the budget process. In Cambria County (Johnstown, PA), County Commissioners must approve all travel outside the state. Cambria County is a 4th class county. Allegheny County has a very strict policy on travel, which I have attached (Exhibit 5). You can see that they limit travel and require several approvals. Allegheny County is a 2nd class county. Finally, Dauphin County, who is a 3rd class county like we are, has the county commissioner vote on all travel outside the routine mileage taken by workers who are required to travel off site as part of their job duties.

The final highlight of these expenses would be a $7,050.00 bill paid to Northampton County Community College for five employees in the Human Resource Department to be trained (Exhibit 7). These trainings were titled:

• Effective Interactions
• Situational Leadership
• Conflict Resolution Strategies
• Managing the Performance of Others
• Coaching for Improved Performance
• Basic Management Skills

This cost was approximately $1,400 per employee. This is excessive. In 2016, we spent approximately $700.00 per correction officer at the jail for their training and staff development. Someone hired into a professional human resources position should be proficient in them before they are hired into that department.

I wanted to also note that there are several meals that seem to be purchased and paid for on these trips and at these conferences that look to be in violation of Northampton County’s Policy on Travel, Meal and Mileage Reimbursement (Code 3.708). However, I will address those in the Procurement Card Audit that will be beginning this month. Several of the meals purchased in the Human Resource Department and throughout the county are purchased using Procurement Cards. This way we can do a universal look at the reimbursement policy and make recommendations based on a larger countywide view.

In closing, it is important to bring this to your attention now since the cost for this line item is already at $19,906.26 (as of 4/12/2017). At the end of 2016 there was discussion of budget transfers to pay a vendor that ultimately led to that bill being paid in 2017. In the e-mail attached Doran Hamann said to one of the disbursement staff that there was no more money to move in 2016 (Exhibit 8). The bill was paid in the 1/06/2017 check run when there was money in the budget to cover the expense. The e-mail exchange was attached to the bill that was paid in 2017 as justification for holding the bill and delaying payment.

Clearly some of these 2017 expenses are not budgeted for and the budgeted amount for 2017 in Misc Employee Benefits in the Human Resource Department (which includes staff development) is only $35,000. That means that already 63% is spent for 2017, and we are only in April.

Alerting Council to this matter in advance highlights a potential problem. Hopefully, this memo will curb spending as more scrutiny is placed on these expenses and ultimately prevent the frivolous and abusive spending of taxpayer money. I also included a complete list of these costs for 2016 in Exhibit 9 and total for 2017 expenses as Exhibit 10. If there are any other items you would like reviewed or to inquire about you now have ready access to the information.

I also recommend that Council take a larger oversight role in travel matters that could lead to large costs. Something reasonable like council approval of all travel that is over 100 miles from the county (excluding the District Attorney, Courts, Sheriff duties for the Courts or routine travel in departments like CYF) would not be too burdensome and allow you greater oversight of the budget expenses which you approve as part of your duties under the Home Rule Charter. The 100 mile limit would not limit travel to places that county employees usual travel to for conferences and training (Philadelphia, Harrisburg, New York), but will provide oversight and an additional approval when airfare and additional taxpayer money would be required to be spent. Council may also want to consider adopting adherence to the DOD rates for travel and reimbursement.

Thank you for your diligent review of these concerns, and I would be happy to provide additional documentation if requested.

40 comments:

Doc Rock said...

Perhaps the NorCo Controller who would be Exec should understand some basic arithmetic. The increase in spending was not 987%; it was 887%. But, what's a mere 100% when you are charged with auditing the books.

Anonymous said...

What Human Resources positions went through the community college training? Was there a need for management training for 5 people in Human Resources? Or were those for people outside of the Human Resources department? Where I work, all training generally goes through the HR budget even for area outside of the HR office proper.

Anonymous said...

Show me a bureaucrat that doesn't abuse travel funds in any government organization ?

Nothing new about this. One of the staples of life and benefits of working for the taxpayer.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Doc Roc, We Democrats don't do math, but whether it is 887% or 987%, it is still way too much. Also, I do not like the lack of oversight over these mini-junkets, which seem to be out of control. He is doing his job.

Anonymous said...

Barron is a fool. Je is meddling in areas outside his purview in order to help hi pal McClure. h should be ashamed of himself. Your hatred of Brown now has you loving Barron. When you pal Stoffa was in office and Barron reported on his nonsense you attacked Barron. Neither of you have credibility.

Anonymous said...

There is an easy way to end this wasteful spending and turn it into a feather in the cap of Brown. Feigned shock, awe, and dismay by Brown who would support a Council that must approve travel expenses before the travel is made.
This is a disgusting amount of money being spent to send employees to vacation destinations without any oversight.

Anonymous said...

This is not a council function and an overreach. It is not the job of Barron to dictate how county government should function. He is far too political.

Anonymous said...

It could be political, but he is not dictating anything. Brown does that. Barron is suggesting to Council that they make changes that will prevent abuse of taxpayer money being spent on BS junkets. It is not a Council function only because they haven't made it their function, but they have the power to change that oversight.

Anonymous said...

What a shame. Continued fleecing of the taxpayer. Heard in Bethlehem Township their senior management attends plenty of netwoking conferences and luncheons too and some are even permitted to work from home a few days per week.

Anonymous said...

What other department do you know hires people for their HR department without the credentials first, but rather spends money for them to get trained? Oh that's right she needs them to carry for her because she is rarely in! When she is the door with film covering it is closed so you can't see if they are there or not!

Might want to check what Human Relations credentials two corrections officers have to be hired.

Anonymous said...

@12:28 These costs are just for HR People and the HR staff. In Northampton County the staff development cost and conferences are largely handled by deparment heads and not HR. That it why the jump from 5,000 to over 50,000 was so shocking.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure??? Or is that the way it was done previously, and may not be the case under the current administration?

Anonymous said...

How is this an over reach? Barron is asking Council to exercise a check over a County Executive who is allowing this needless waste of taxpayer money. If council discovered this was going on under Barron's nose they would be the first to ask him what he knew about it and why he did not report it.

He isn't asking for the approval himself, but made suggestions that other counties are using this very minute and just wants these junkets to stop from here on out.

This is his job... he finds waste as a watch dog, shines a light on it and then reports it to the people who can prevent it from continuing. This seems like good work and a perfect use of his time and resources.

The 4 am comments sound like someone who got his or or hand caught in the cookie jar.

Anonymous said...

@7:15 I have Barron's original memo that has documentation and it is clear this is for HR. As someone who was part of the budget process HR may help find resources all the costs are sent to the proper departments for accounting.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that the management training was not for HR personnel only.

Anonymous said...

@6:50 one of those hired from the prison is one of the folks who is getting this training Barron speaks about.

Anonymous said...

@7:31 ok well get Barron's full memo. The names of the recipients are right in there. The specific community college managers training had HR people in it who should have this basic knowledge already... this is no justification for the other spending like trips to Vegas and New Orleans.

The point it let Trapp convince council this spending is OK before she goes. If it's justified it should face and pass public scrutiny. This would not, should not and was excessive.

Anonymous said...

well one thing is the audit came after Bernie filed for that info.
so thanks for bringing light to the situation.
another question is what repercussions are to be expected from this revelation?
a stern memo to stop it?
seems to me someone should have to defend the spending they approved or used.
i am not saying a head has to be on a pike but simply saying "oh well" is not really acceptable.
unless a head on a pike is what is needed to stop such waste.

Anonymous said...

They should be doing a review not only of county agencies but the agencies the County gives money to. The County is giving $500,000 or more to some and why should they be exempt from review? That's an often hidden element in the budget.

Anonymous said...

Why were the over payments for meals allowed. The person who monitors the travel expenses should be fired for paying out in excess of per diem. Monthly accounting should show budget balances so they are not exceeded.

Anonymous said...

Lehigh Valley has a wellspring of HR professionals, a highly regarded chapter of SHRM, and a number of HR courses within the local/area colleges and grad schools. It is a sham to send county employees to Nola/Vegas et al.
This is truly a scandal. Suggest BO contact local SHRM chapter to assess their capabilities and links to relevant training.

Bernie O'Hare said...

This could be why Trapp used county funds to enroll the Las Vegas attendee in the local SHRM. I thought that SHRM behind their names was some kind of degree. It's a frickin' club.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Barron is a fool. Je is meddling in areas outside his purview in order to help hi pal McClure."

Read the first paragraph of his memo. This is precisely what a controller should be doing. He can't help it that this has negative political repercussions. If you don't want that, then quit spending the public purse on trips allover the country.

Anonymous said...

Beth Twp P-card December 2016:

Administration - Lunch Meetings, Training: $1,499.75
Administration - Lunch Meetings, Training: $362.96
Physical Plant - Network Fees, Training: $1,887.49

Also to note, Twp removes Bill Agenda & P-Card purchases from past meeting agenda's and only current meeting is available?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"This is not a council function and an overreach. It is not the job of Barron to dictate how county government should function."

Read the first paragraph again. This is precisely what a controller does. He has the authority, on his own initiative and at any time, to review any aspect of government finances.he jas every right to suggest internal controls to stop the waste of government spending. He provided examples of other governments who do give the council oversight over spending. In Bethlehem Tp, the BOC signs off and reviews ALL travel, even for polygraph training. There has never been a need for this in the past bc staffers were not allowed to go on trips like these.

If you think a Controller should not be reviewing county finances and that Brown and Trapp should be able to send their people all over the country with no oversight, while installing time clocks for everyone else, good for you. Those of us who want good government are disgusted by this.

Bernie O'Hare said...

9:33, Please stick to NC. I'll get to BT.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Are you sure??? Or is that the way it was done previously, and may not be the case under the current administration?"

You get a C on reading comprehension. Pay attention. I already did a story and Barron's own memo reveal that the staff development spending in HR is ten times what it was on average over the five preceding years. This is far from the norm.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"I know for a fact that the management training was not for HR personnel only."

This is all HR.

Bernie O'Hare said...

" The increase in spending was not 987%; it was 887%. But, what's a mere 100% when you are charged with auditing the books."

By the way, you are full of shit. It IS 987%.

Maybe you need staff development training.

Anonymous said...

It's not a CLUB! It's a nationally recognized organization which certifies professionals. It's not the freaking moose lodge!

Anonymous said...

SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP are professional credentials.

Bernie O'Hare said...

How about SHRM? If someone has SHRM alone behind his name, all that means is that he's in the frickin' Moose Lodge. The CP and SCP are credentials, but not "professional" credentials. If someone is an engineer, lawyer, teacher, cleric or physician, he is a professional. We tend to use that word to dignify jobs beyond what they really are.

Anonymous said...

The Brown administration is rife with an attitude of self-righteous entitlement at the expense of taxpayers they are supposed to be serving. Council sits back and does nothing, which enables Brown's minions to cheat and waste valuable tax dollars. Bravo, Steve Barron for exposing this shameful activity.

Anonymous said...

Barron is really the only one who can point things like this out without worry of loosing his job. Anyone else who dare cross Brown or Amy Trapp end up terminated or are threatened with such.

Anonymous said...

Who has just SHRM behind their name? If Trapp has MSHRM behind her name, that IS a degree... it's a Master of Science in Human Resource Management.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I see the SHRM behind the names of many people in the HR field, which is not really a profession.

Anonymous said...

MSHRM, vanity plate acronym for mushroom? The psychedelic kind Von Trapp has been consuming while approving these useless junkets?

Jeff Fox said...

We should be very pleased with our controller for looking into this. The controller's position is vitally important to the taxpayers of Northampton County. Those concerned with politics and motivation, whether true or not, are not able to see the forest through the trees. No more politics as usual. Is anyone really against saving the taxpayer money? Enough with the petty political trolling statements. The controller found waste and made recommendations to council to save taxpayer money. Period. Thank you Steve. Thank you Bernie. Carry on.

Peter J.Cochran said...

ALL THAT MONEY FOR WORKERS COMPENSATION . Horse Crap they fail to show at the 'Governor's Safety Conference in Hershey where role playing is done in a classroom environment about what happens next when a claim comes in the office ,all for cost of hotel room . Then they are subject to 'heart and lung 'issues via the Sheriff's and the Prison folks . Almost nobody knows how to make this work right . I personally have studied the subject and i will bet my next retirement check against their salary for the month- the HR dept can not stand in front of me tomorrow morning at 8 am and site the rules evan after an expensive trip. Mark Refowich ,ESQ was a master here once .

Peter J.Cochran said...

ALL THAT MONEY FOR WORKERS COMPENSATION . Horse Crap they fail to show at the 'Governor's Safety Conference in Hershey where role playing is done in a classroom environment about what happens next when a claim comes in the office ,all for cost of hotel room . Then they are subject to 'heart and lung 'issues via the Sheriff's and the Prison folks . Almost nobody knows how to make this work right . I personally have studied the subject and i will bet my next retirement check against their salary for the month- the HR dept can not stand in front of me tomorrow morning at 8 am and site the rules evan after an expensive trip. Mark Refowich ,ESQ was a master here once .