Dinner cruise and show, pricey meals cost BTES customers in 2013 - WRBL

Dinner cruise and show, pricey meals cost BTES customers in 2013

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BRISTOL, TN (WJHL) - A review of Bristol Tennessee Essential Services' 2013 travel expenses revealed more than four meals that cost more than $60 a person and a $109 dinner cruise and show.

"That is not the norm," BTES Director of Accounting and Finance Lola McVey said.

The $109 dinner cruise and show in Nashville took place in July during the Tennessee Safety Conference. According to receipts, BTES' Director of Operations and Safety charged two tickets for the riverboat cruise for him and his wife. McVey says as soon as he returned he reimbursed half of the cost. She says it was considered a good networking experience.

"Those are part of a group participation and sometimes the best learnings that you get are not maybe in the meetings that you go to, but it's the one-on-one connection that you get with other people are (at the conference)," McVey said.

Aside from that expense, A March legislative rally in Washington, D.C. proved to be the second most expensive per person. The total bill at The Monocle, a steak and seafood restaurant on Capitol Hill, came to $436.41. According to travel records, three board members, the CEO and McVey herself attended. If you break the cost down per individual the meal cost $87 per person.

"Sometimes you're in big cities, you go someplace close, you go someplace quiet where you can have some meaningful conversation with those people," McVey said.

Other 2013 meals near or topping $60 a person occurred in Nashville, Franklin, Chattanooga and Tampa. However, BTES says it doesn't have a single itemized receipt listing details of those meals for any of the dinners in question. That means it's unclear to the public what these people ate or drank.

"We pay for the meal and what they had is not a concern," McVey said.

Despite the high numbers, the public utility says all of its travel expenses were reasonable and justified.

"We're very aware that everything we spend does come from our customers, our rate payers," McVey said. "Our electric rates are some of the lowest in the Tennessee Valley, so I think that would bear out we are prudently using our customers' money."

Although the meals and cruise cost customers on the front end, McVey says every expense saved customers a lot more money in the long run. In fact, through discussions and negotiations during these trips she says BTES saved customers $1.5 million in 2013 alone.

"There's certainly ways we can show (customers) how that $87 per meal or $60 per meal was beneficial," McVey said. "I'm proud of the amount that we've spent and what we've been able to accomplish."

In all of 2013, BTES spent roughly $53,000 on travel expenses, which is more than twice as much as the Johnson City Power Board did last year. That said, BTES provides four services while JCPB does not. When you crunch the numbers, McVey says that $53,000 is the equivalent of just 10 cents on a $200 customer bill or 0.05% of BTES' $100 million in revenue every year.

"Every penny does count," McVey said. "We're aware of that and we focus on that. We try to provide great electric power at the lowest cost possible, but sometimes with that meal we're getting to sit down one-on-one, either with someone that's an expert in the field, maybe it's a best practice that we're learning that will ultimately save our customers money."

According to McVey, management and board members review conferences and meetings annually to see if the benefit exceeds the cost.

"Our goal is to always provide safe and reliable service to our customers and we feel this is essential to the operation and management," McVey said. "We evaluate each meeting that we go to and say, 'Is this going to have some benefit to us? Is it not?' and if it doesn't we don't go. Who wants to be away for several days when it's not going to be beneficial?"

McVey says the fact that it received an excellence award for the second time last February from the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence shows BTES is tops when it comes to business practices. She also says BTES follows generally accepted accounting principles.

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