6 Investigates questionable spending by Morristown utility compa

6 Investigates questionable spending by Morristown utility company: expensive banquets

Employees at Morristown Utility Systems boarded the Tennessee Riverboat Saturday for a private cruise. They had just finished eating at Calhoun's. The cost to rate payers added up to $5,327.86, but that’s only a third of the cost of the utility’s banquet. Employees at Morristown Utility Systems boarded the Tennessee Riverboat Saturday for a private cruise. They had just finished eating at Calhoun's. The cost to rate payers added up to $5,327.86, but that’s only a third of the cost of the utility’s banquet.

MORRISTOWN (WATE) - Employees at Morristown Utility Systems boarded the Tennessee Riverboat Saturday for a private cruise paid for by MUS customers. They had just finished eating at Calhoun's. The cost to rate payers added up to $5,327.86, but that’s only a third of the cost of the utility’s banquet. We found similar events have become an annual tradition.

Previous story: 6 Investigates questionable spending by Morristown Utility Systems

As the 6 News I-Team reviewed 26 months of utility credit card statements and receipts, we noticed high-dollar purchases for gift cards and electronics. Our investigation revealed those purchases, paid for by ratepayers, were for employees.

The gifts and cash for the 2011 annual awards banquet, which cost $16,659.63, may have been handed out by a game show host. The utility spent $3,100 for "one professional game show host and technical operator." They contracted with The Big Game Show, a company that suggests "Who Wants to be a Little Richer?" as a possible game.

Read more: 2011 awards banquet records [PDF]

The gifts available, paid for by MUS customers, totaled $3,402.50. Some of the high dollar "employee prizes" included a $600 gift card to the Omni Grove Park Inn in North Carolina, an iPad 2, a 32 inch television, and an Xbox 360 with Kinect. Other employees left with gift cards to places such as Cracker Barrel and Wal-Mart.

“Can I go and participate?” asked Sherry Eason. She works down the street from MUS and said she earns about $12,000 per year, the same amount as one MUS employee’s raise in 2011.

“These people make enough money that they don’t need gift cards,” she said.

Some employees received a Visa gift card.  The banquet budget called for $3,402.50 for those gift cards, depending on how long employees worked at the utility. Once the game show ended and all costs were tallied up, the utility noted the event went $59.63 over its $16,000 budget. Each customer’s share at MUS was about $1.06.

The budget jumped about $5,000 for the 2012 banquet to $21,702.71.

Read more: 2012 awards banquet records [PDF]

“I’ve never seen one like this,” said Bob Garrett, a Morristown city councilman who worked at the utility for 42 years before retiring.

Employees met at The Country Club in Morristown. The $6,132.72 menu, paid for by MUS ratepayers, included chicken marsala and grilled beef tenderloin. The cost per person, including gratuity, was $33.15.

At the front of the rented room, the country club set space aside for Felix and Fingers. The utility paid the performers $3,600 for a one hour dueling pianos performance. 

“It speaks for itself to me,” Garrett said.

Just like 2011’s banquet, another trip was up for grabs at the 2012 banquet, this time a $600 weekend stay at the Biltmore. Also included in the $3,494.51 door prize budget was a Kindle Fire HD, an iPad mini, and a Ruth’s Chris gift card, among other things. The banquet’s budget for "service awards cash" said $7,755.00.

Altogether, each MUS customer paid about $1.45 for the 2012 employee banquet.

“They go too far on this stuff right here,” said Garrett.

He believes the utility should have a meeting once a year for employees, but when he saw the $21,702.71 price for the 2012 banquet, he said, “the taxpayers and ratepayers would not like that.”

Just a month earlier, in December, the utility charged $13,822.82 for an employee breakfast at the Morristown Best Western. Most of the cost, $11,890 was for $100 gift cards given to employees. The rest went to breakfast for the board, employees and contractors.

The price for the 2013 employee breakfast increased nearly $5,000 to $18,776.10.

Read more: 2013 awards banquet records [PDF]

“Breakfast, $18,000, in Morristown Tenn.?” asked Garrett.

Mayor Danny Thomas seemed surprised also.

“I’m sure we have a lot of city employees that would wish we would put on an event like that, but we’re a little more frugal,” he said. “There is a need obviously for further investigation into how money is being spent.”

The utility spent $16,160 of the breakfast budget on Visa Gift Cards for employees. Each MUS ratepayer’s share of the gift card cost alone was about $1.07. The rest of the budget went to food and a room fee.

For last Saturday’s banquet, employees left Morristown and headed to the Tennessee River in Knoxville for their $15,180.86 banquet, costing MUS ratepayers about $1.01 each. We talked to Sherry Eason a few days before the banquet and showed her gift cards that some employees would be going home with.

“I will take one of those, too,” Eason said.

A $300 West Town Mall gift card, $100 for Ruth’s Chris, and $1,740 worth of Cracker Barrel gift cards were among the gifts charged to utility credit cards. Door prizes, including those gift cards, totaled $3,429.

“Group gifts” for 82 employees were also charged to utility credit cards, at a cost of $6,274. The utility did not provide detail of what those gifts would be in our records request, but according to a document obtained by the 6 News I-Team, the $76.51 per person cost included a $20 Cracker Barrel gift card, $20 O’Charley’s gift card, $20 Carmike Cinema gift card, a $10 voucher for two car washes, and a coupon for Sweet Cece’s. 

Employees met around noon Saturday to receive those gifts and eat at Calhoun's. Then, it was time for a cruise on the Tennessee River.

We tried to interview Clark Rucker, the utility’s assistant general manager, as he boarded the boat for the 2:30 p.m. sailing time.

“I can’t comment. Nobody but our general manager can do that. I’m sorry,” he said.

He was referring to Jody Wigington. 6 News requested an on-camera interview with him, but he refused and responded by email. We wanted to know how the utility justifies spending $33,956, about $2.26 per MUS customer, on the last company banquet and breakfast.

“It is recognition of the hard work and dedication these employees put in on a daily basis, many of whom risk their lives working around high voltage and in heavy traffic in all types of weather,” he said. The utility doesn’t give bonuses or added compensation, according to Wigington.

We also asked why the company needed to give employees thousands of dollars’ worth of gift cards and prizes.

“Providing a few door prizes at the banquet is an additional means of showing our appreciation for our employees,” Wigington said. He told us the events were not parties. 

Previous story: 6 Investigates Morristown Utilities Systems salaries, compares spending to KUB

MUS customers told us their rates should be lowered. Wigington, however, said rates for water and electricity haven’t increased in years. “We operate with a slim margin and the greatest opportunity for rate reduction will occur when wholesale costs decrease,” said Wigington. He wrote MUS rates are among the lowest in the state and well below the national average.

“We constantly strive to provide the highest level of service at the lowest cost possible,” were Wigington’s final words in the email response.  
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