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CINCINNATI   POST

Rhodes questions staff car rentals

By Mike Rutledge, Post staff reporter

Hamilton County employees have used taxpayer-rented vehicles to drive hundreds of miles on their own time while attending out-of-town conventions, county Auditor Dusty Rhodes says in a report released Tuesday. He urges county commissioners to review county travel policies.

Rhodes said that while the rental-car use was not illegal, ''the documentation and (the employees') responses show a rather liberal interpretation by these elected officials and employees with respect to what constitutes 'business use' of rental cars.''

In some cases, cars were rented even when the conference was held in the same hotel where the employees were staying, Rhodes found. Some employees responded, however, that rental vehicles can be a necessity even in that circumstance - depending on the city, the availability of taxis, and proximity of the hotel to restaurants and the major airport.

Commission President Bob Bedinghaus had not seen Rhodes' report Tuesday, his secretary said.

Rhodes, whose office several years ago was part of a committee that created the current travel policy, has urged the county commissioners to revisit that policy with another such panel.

His report lists these examples: County Health Commissioner Timothy Ingram, attending a 1998 National Environmental Health Association education conference in Las Vegas, arrived four days before its start and rented a car on which he put 1,132 miles over 11 days. He was charged $415.34 and requested $207.66 reimbursement for six of those days. He stayed at the conference location. Ingram was unavailable to comment Tuesday afternoon.

R. Joseph Gunterman, the county's training and development manager, had approval to attend a March 24-27, 1998, conference in Chicago. He rented a car upon arrival and ran up 701 miles traveling to Sturgeon Bay in Door County, Wisc., to discuss with a workplace-violence program with a colleague. He returned the car March 25, the day auditors say conference sessions began.

Gunterman's boss, county Personnel Director James Lowry, said Gunterman had told him before the trip he might travel to Wisconsin to discuss the program because Hamilton County was investigating beginning its own workplace-violence program.

''He's a manager-level here,'' Lowry said of Gunterman. ''His record is impeccable, and I would stand it up against anybody's, including Dusty Rhodes.' ''

When John Baron, Robert Lodge and Arnold Weathers from the River City Correctional Institution attended an American Correctional Association gathering in Denver last Aug. 8-12 with Common Pleas Administrator Michael Walton, Baron's car racked up 4,067 miles. Auditors confirmed that mileage figure with the rental company but still believe that figure is incorrect. ''I would have had to drive from Denver to Cincinnati twice in the time I was out there,'' said Baron, who said the mileage was definitely wrong. As with many county rentals, the vehicle agreement was for unlimited mileage. Walton also rented a car and drove 468 miles. Rhodes' report questioned why two vehicles were necessary for four men - especially when a ''shuttle service from the airport to the hotel was available at a small charge.'' Walton said cars are needed when restaurants are far from the hotel: ''Are you going to be held prisoner or captive in your hotel during the time you're there?''

Travel guidelines

Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes told county commissioners Tuesday he would like to see these travel guidelines in place for county employees: Prior written justification for vehicle rental. No vehicle rental when employee's hotel is conference site. Making cab or shuttle fares separate from employees' $40-per-day meal expenses. Travel expenses ''should never be approved by employees reporting to the person making such claims.''

Publication date: 04-05-00

Copyright 2000, The Cincinnati Post. All Rights Reserved.

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