Wednesday, May 19, 2010
UPDATED MAY 20
Fuel purchases by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors have cost county taxpayers over $10,000 since January 2009, according to documents obtained by the Jackson Free Press. The Jackson Free Press obtained Fuelman expense reports for each of the five county supervisors through a public-records request.
The Fuelman program gives public employees a third-party account to purchase gas for government vehicles. The program came under scrutiny in 2009, when a city of Jackson audit revealed 9,000 discrepancies in Fuelman transactions for a four-month period in 2008. Since then, city officials have repeatedly urged employees to use the program cautiously.
While the records reveal no apparent misuse of the Fuelman program, they do illustrate different patterns in the use of county-provided vehicles between supervisors.
Board President Robert Graham earned the most-expensive award, racking up $3,239.47 in charges to his Fuelman account from January 2009 to March 2010. Of that, $1,558.43 was attributed to a special-projects coordinator and $1,669.85 to Graham himself. In that span, Graham put 16,163 miles on his county vehicle. Almost all of Graham's Fuelman purchases were in Jackson or the surrounding metro area, with the exception of an April 2009 trip to Tupelo.
George Smith proved the most well-traveled supervisor, racking up 19,045 miles and total expenses of $2,948.01. Smith told the Jackson Free Press that he regularly drives 100 miles in a day, traveling across his district on county business. Smith pointed out that his district is one of the county's largest, extending south from Woodrow Wilson Avenue to the Copiah County border.
Smith also made out-of-county trips to Hernando and, in July, to Nashville for a conference of the National Association of Counties. Like all out-of-state travel, Smith's Nashville trip had to be approved beforehand. State law requires the board to approve out-of-state travel requests by inserting them in its meeting minutes.
Smith said that he would expect his Fuelman expenses to be higher than those for Graham and Supervisor Peggy Calhoun, both of whom represent districts entirely within Jackson's city limits.
"(There) should be a whole lot of difference in mine and, say, Mr. Graham's and Ms. Calhoun's," Smith said. "Their (districts) are all city; they don't have to go out of the city. From one end of my district to the other is 40 miles. If I make one trip, that's as much as they'll drive in a week."
While Graham and Calhoun represent the smallest districts in the county, they are not the board's lightest drivers. Supervisor Phil Fisher, who represents a large swath of central Hinds County, including Clinton and Byram, earns that honor. Fisher is the board's lone Republican and vociferous opponent of increases to county spending. He has apparently walked the fiscally conservative walk as well, buying only $697.33 in gas and traveling only 3,955 miles from January 2009 to March 2010.
Calhoun had the next-lowest expenses, charging the county $943.83 for gas and traveling 5,262 miles. Calhoun recorded two fuel purchases outside the metro area: one in Biloxi June 18 and another in Robinsonville, near Tunica, Aug.15. The Biloxi trip was in conjunction with a Mississippi Association of Supervisors conference, while the Robinsonville purchase was for a conference called by Congressman Bennie Thompson, Calhoun said. Calhoun also disputed Smith's suggestion that her district's relatively smaller size meant that she needed to drive less. She pointed to section 65-7-117 of the Mississippi Code, which states: "Each member of the board of supervisors shall inspect every road and bridge in the county under the jurisdiction of the county (annually)."
Supervisor Doug Anderson, whose district runs along Hinds County's northern and western borders, accumulated $2,263.66 in Fuelman expenses, driving 18,359 miles.
Board Attorney Crystal Martin deserves special recognition for being abundantly helpful with the public-records request that precipitated this column. Martin accepted our request via e-mail—none of this fax nonsense—and responded with an estimated cost in seven days. Even more significantly, the price Martin quoted, $31, reflected only the copying costs. She didn't charge us retrieval costs, as she was technically allowed to, under state law.
Martin's decision to waive the retrieval costs should not be newsworthy. Unfortunately, many governmental bodies in Mississippi take advantage of state law allowing for "reasonable" retrieval and copying charges by charging prohibitively high costs for records. This is a deceptive tactic, as it allows agencies to appear open, claiming to grant a records request, while effectively stonewalling journalists and citizens as thoroughly as if they had denied the request from the outset.
This article has been updated with additional information from Supervisor Peggy Calhoun.
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