Wednesday, December 8, 2021

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Graham, NC 27253
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Council agrees to subject itself to revised employee travel policy

Burlington’s elected leaders have chosen not to be exempt from a proposed overhaul of the city’s employee travel policy, which is intended to curb potential abuses of the municipality’s current provisions for work-related excursions.

During a regularly-scheduled work session last Monday, the members of Burlington’s city council insisted that they should also be subject to the prospective new rules, which the city’s administrators had drawn up to replace personnel policies that date back to 2012.

The council asked to be held to the same standard as staff members after Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins briefed its members on the proposed changes, which he said are meant to ensure that “people who represent the city…don’t incur a financial loss” but are nevertheless moderate in their spending on meals and accommodations.

According to Watkins, the new policy would require staff members to clear most city-related travel with their department heads in advance. It nevertheless demands special permission from either the city manager or one of his three assistants in the case of out-of-state trips.

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Watkins went on to summarize some of the policy’s proposed criteria for reimbursable travel expenses and touched on some other provisions that are supposed to prevent potential abuses by staff members.

“There’s no double dipping or acceptance of outside per-diem payments,” he told the council. “Honorariums and stipends should be declined, [although] there’s also a provision in the policy that if the person is insistent, the employee is advised to seek the guidance of their department head.”

Watkins noted that, under the proposed policy, alcoholic beverages would be deemed a non-reimbursable expense, while staff members would only be allowed to bring their spouses or children on trips if there is no additional cost to the city. The policy would also encourage employees to use city vehicles rather than their own cars for city-sponsored excursions, although they would still receive mileage reimbursements if they use their own wheels for a road trip.

In response to a question from councilman Jim Butler, Watkins conceded that he and his fellow administrators had drafted this policy for city staff members as well as appointees to boards and commissions who travel on the city’s behalf.

“At this moment,” he added, “it would not apply to the city council.”

Butler, who is also Burlington’s new mayor-elect after a successful bid in last Tuesday’s election, nevertheless suggested that the travel policy should be extended to council members. His proposal was immediately echoed by councilman Harold Owen, who was reelected to his own seat on the council last week. It was later endorsed by Burlington’s incumbent mayor Ian Baltutis, who lost his position to Butler in the election. Baltutis said he had no qualms with Butler’s proposal since he was already following the recommendations that appear in the policy.

The council ultimately agreed to have the proposed policy come back up for approval on November 16.

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