In the months after we started questioning the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s travel expenses the number of out-of-town trips dropped and so did the costs associated with those trips.
After a several month dispute, the agency finally let us look at its public records, which revealed KHRA spent almost 50% less in the first six months of 2015 on out of town training compared to the first six months of 2014; a difference of more than $12,000.
Documents provided to us by the agency showed a training cost of more than $25,000 in the first six months of 2014 compared to a cost of more than $13,000 in the first half of 2015.
While KHRA employees traveled to Atlanta, San Diego, Detroit and Washington, DC, as well as other places out of state during that time in 2014, in the first six months of 2015, aside from trips to Houston and New Orleans, all other trips were in-state, according to records provided to us by KHRA for review.
What changed? KHRA Executive Director Terry Cunningham previously agreed to an on-camera interview, but the agency later refused.
“KHRA as an agency will not be granting an on-camera interview,” spokesperson Sharon Hayes said in an email last month. “As we previously indicated, KHRA had several employees in new positions and several new employees in 2014. The rationale for the travel last year included the need to bring these employees up to speed on their respective assignments. Program staff is currently stable, and is continuing to attend training as necessary. KHRA’s training expenses will vary from year to year based on HUD program changes and changes in employee assignments.”
In a follow-up email sent last week Hayes said the agency disputes our comparison.
“Comparing a set of months in one year vs. another year is misleading and inaccurate because of variables such as new staff, new programs, updates, etc. that can happen at different times,” Hayes wrote.
Earlier this year a Community Watchdog investigation revealed in the year before the agency laid off employees and made other cuts in light of reduced federal funding KHRA spent $84,000 on training in 2014.
The agency initially declined our requests to inspect receipts and other expenses linked to those trips and trips in 2015. It took some help from the federal government, but the agency eventually let us look at the public records.
According to the documents, every purchase last year, whether it was a few bucks here and there on candy and snacks, steaks, lobster or crab legs, fell within KHRA’s travel policy, which sets daily limits on meals.
When we questioned KHRA about its higher than expected travel expenses earlier this year former Board Chairman Jack VandeVate took offense. He not only abruptly ended the interview, but he also called our questions disrespectful.
“We send people to training sessions that we need to send them,” VandeVate said. “We review their expenses when they come back.”
The agency chalked up its $84,000 worth of travel and training expenses in 2014 to several new hires and several employees in new positions; people that needed to be certified and employees who needed to be brought up to speed on their assignments.
“We are comfortable with what we do and we don’t need you smart***es telling us how to do it,” VandeVate said at the time.
Despite the decrease in spending for out of town training in the first six months of this calendar year, KHRA reports its training budget actually increased for this fiscal year by 3%. The agency’s fiscal year ends on March 31st.