JEFFERSON CITY - Funerals and retirement parties are just a few of the places state officials have flown on the taxpayers' dime, according to State Auditor Clare McCaskill.
In a report released Thursday, McCaskill details her department's year-long audit of state passenger plane use from 1999-2001. The investigation discovered officials were using the planes for "questionable" reasons. In one instance, the documented reason for flying to an event was a "surprise" and "they plan to have cake."
Officials also spent hundreds of taxpayer dollars chartering private planes when the state's own planes were not in use and inviting relatives to go on trips.
"What we found in the audit is absolutely shocking," said the state auditor's spokesman, Glenn Campbell. He said state employees should understand that "people realize how strapped our state is for cash right now and in regard to government waste in general there isn't a whole lot of sympathy."
To improve efficiency and cut costs, the report recommends the state downsize its passenger plane fleet and establish a uniform policy on airplane use.
Four agencies currently use the state's eight passenger planes. They include the departments of transportation, conservation, administration and the Highway Patrol.
Representatives of the four departments said they are receptive to the auditor's recommendations and plan to make changes.
Office of Administration Commissioner Jackie White said her department began working to improve the use of state planes before the audit was done.
"Prior to the audit we had already reached the decision that the Office of Administration eliminate three aircraft this fiscal year and replace them with one," White said.
When the State Transportation Commission got wind of McCaskill's impending audit, Jim Anderson, head of the audit committee for the commission, asked for an internal audit.
"I wanted to be proactive instead of reactive," Anderson said.
Roberta Broeker, inspector general for MoDOT, did an audit of MoDOT's use of state-owned planes from January 2002 to January 2003.
Despite MoDOT's lack of a written policy regarding plane use, Broeker said "There wasn't any flight we thought wasn't clearly for state business."
There was no documentation of the decisions made to justify use of the state plane, Broker said. In order to do her audit she had to "piece together" the information from flight logs and "employee recollections," she said.
However, McCaskill's audit covered a different time period and found otherwise.
The transportation and conservation departments were singled out in the report for spending $419,000 between 1999 to 2001 to fly commissioners to meetings and events.
Representatives from the two departments said it is difficult to cut down on these costs, because the commissioners are scattered around the state.
"These commissioners are very busy people in many cases and the hours and hours of time that flying will save them will allow them to participate," said MoDOT Spokesman Jeff Briggs. "Otherwise, these high-profile people may not be available to meet with us."
But Campbell said some commissioners have come to view state planes as their own "private taxis." Given the state's budget woes, he said agencies need to encourage commissioners to drive or catch commercial flights when possible.
But Anderson said common sense must rule when deciding whether to fly or drive. And he said retirement parties may be legitimate expenses.
"There are times when it is appropriate to use the plane for appearance and visibility purposes," Anderson said.
State agencies came under fire for not having a clear definition of what constitutes "state business" and when airplanes should be used. In particular, the report notes that the Highway Patrol's top management flew to 38 receptions between 1999 and 2001. MoDOT frequently flew employees to dinner receptions for retiring transportation commissioners. Between January 2000 and February 2002, the department spent $7,688 for eight flights with 31 passengers to five retirement receptions.
In several instances, family members of state employees and retired employees also flew on state planes. In one case, an employee who retired 10 years ago flew with four state employees to Ontario to attend a Midwest Deer and Turkey meeting at a cost of $1,544.
White said the Office of Administration plans to bring the other agencies together to draft statewide travel policies.
"We are certainly looking to play a leadership role and improve the coordination between all four of us," she said.
Campbell said the state auditor plans to do a follow-up report in six months to find out whether the concerns raised have been addressed.
"All the individuals that participate in the maintenance schedule and the actual delivery of flight services should be able to come together and make this happen," he said.
Megan McCloskey contributed to this report.