Taxpayers pay for state agency's mountain-top getaway - FOX Carolina 21

Taxpayers pay for state agency's mountain-top getaway

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Employees of a state agency that spent more than $130,000 to send hundreds of people to a mountain resort for five days are wondering whether the expensive retreat was worth it.

The Channel 4 I-Team went undercover to track how the Tennessee Division of Vocational Rehabilitation spent your money. They help people with disabilities find work, but many of the employees don't work anywhere near the conference location.

The employees wanted to know why the agency dragged everyone to a faraway, expensive destination instead of using a state building. And, was this kind of conference really worth being out of commission for a week?

Some 225 state employees in the Tennessee Division of Vocational Rehabilitation spent four nights and five days at a Gatlinburg mountain resort complete with a lagoon pool, stunning views and a cozy fireside bar for three days of training on the taxpayers' dime.

One state worker said "there's no accounting for the logic to it," during the conference where the agency's assistant commissioner explained why they were there. And it sure wasn't to reward a job well done.

The assistant commissioner told the group that the agency was tasked with helping 17,000 people with disabilities find work last year, but only 1,900 of them found jobs.

Over the course of the next few days, workers heard speakers, watched PowerPoint presentations and spent each night socializing on their own at the Park Vista Resort. The Channel 4 I-Team watched long lunches, 15-minute breaks that stretched into 45 minutes and three meals a day - all paid for by taxpayers.

The total cost for the trip included hotel fees of more than $79,000, supplies of nearly $6,000, speakers at more than $2,000 and meals and mileage at more than $43,000, which brings the grand total to taxpayers reaching $131,000.

At the end of the conference, the state workers filled out questionnaires. While some were pleased with the trip, others didn't pull any punches.

One state worker wrote: "Could have been done in a day-and-a-half. Three to four hours of breaks are totally unnecessary."

Another said: "Hospitality room was far too small. Would rather do without alcohol and have larger area to meet and greet. Gatlinburg was a major inconvenience for me. We should never have a state meeting on one side of the state."

A third state employee said: "Hold conferences like this in Middle Tennessee so less travel involved for overall participants."

"When you have a conference of this magnitude constructive feedback is going to be expected," said assistant commissioner Cherrell Campbell-Street.

The Channel 4 I-Team did the math on the travel required, as some employees drove more than 430 miles all the way from one side of the state to the other. On average, the workers drove 213 miles to get to Gatlinburg, which is an average of 83 miles more than if the conference were held in Nashville.

All that travel not only cost the state more in mileage, but it also kept those counselors away from their clients for longer.

The Channel 4 I-Team took a hidden camera to the agency's Nashville office during the week of the out-of-town conference.

"Do you have any counselors here today?" the I-Team asked.

"No. They all had a conference this week they won't be back until Monday," an office worker said.

"So there's been nobody here all week?" the I-Team asked.

"No," the worker said, laughing. "No, just the bottom of the totem pole."

Despite what we saw, the state said nearly 1,500 vocational rehabilitation clients were served that week.

"All of the VR offices were open and did receive clients," Campbell-Street said.

As for why the agency chose Gatlinburg, Campbell-Street said: "We did again look at the different areas, and because we had so many great speakers and different people, we wanted to make sure we had it an area that was going to be the most cost-effective. And, again, the East Tennessee area was that, based on our research."

The assistant commissioner said the agency got a good rate for the hotel at $77 a night, which was apparently lower than they could find in Nashville, Memphis or Knoxville.

But, the department could not tell the Channel 4 I-Team which hotels they compared, and the organizers didn't solicit offers from anyone else before booking the Park Vista Resort.

For days now, the Channel 4 I-Team has been trying to clarify with DHS how many vocational rehab clients actually got jobs.

At the conference, the assistant commissioner said only 1,900, but a DHS spokesperson said Monday those 1,900 are just those who have been employed for 90 days and there are about 700 more clients whose employment has yet not reached that 90-day threshold.

The conference in Gatlinburg lasted three days, from a Tuesday to Thursday, but some state workers arrived Monday and left Friday. The state also said it asked its employees to carpool to save money, and many of the employees responded on their questionnaire that they felt good about the conference.

"What we wanted to do was again really stress the importance to our staff that we want to provide the best quality services to our customers and that's people with disabilities," said Campbell-Street.

After viewing the Channel 4 I-Team's hidden camera video, State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said the Department of Human Services spent tax dollars recklessly.

"I'll be talking to the commissioner and the administration about it as well," Ketron said.

On the other hand, Gov. Bill Haslam said there's nothing wrong with the conference.

"As I understand it - professional development is important, and these are folks who hadn't had any training in 10 years," Haslam said.

When asked if the agency had the option of using video conferencing or a webinar, Haslam said often in-person sessions are better.

"I think you could, but I think all of us would say with training, being there live makes a difference. I don't know enough specifically to say if a webinar would have been acceptable substitute or not," Haslam said.

The Channel 4 I-TEAM asked several state agencies what their policies are on out-of-town conferences.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol uses video conferencing when possible. The Driver Services Division held its most recent training week at Paris Landing State Park - training, we're told, that is required by federal law.

A state health department spokesperson said she was not aware of any out of town conferences for her department in the more than six years that she's been there.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation told us a number of employees attended a seminar just last week, but it was held here in Nashville with no overnight stays.

And a Department of General Services spokesperson said while costs are always considered, sometimes conferences are the best way to provide needed training."

The Channel 4 I-Team asked for more specifics about any conferences for General Services employees, and they said they haven't had any large conferences in the last year.

Some staffers from another state agency are planning to send employees to Gatlinburg coming up in April. A Fire Prevention Division spokesperson said that upcoming conference is not sponsored by the state, and it helps staffers meet legal requirements for annual training.

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