By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Secretary of Public Welfare Gary Alexander lives in Rhode Island – and his commute is costing taxpayers hundreds of dollars every month.
Monthly vehicle use reports filed with the Department of General Services show Alexander drove 41,727 miles in state-owned vehicles from July 2011 through June 2012. Of those trips, at least 21,807 miles were tallied under “commute” travel.
The trips add up. Alexander spent more than $4,700 in state expenses the calendar year 2011, according to state records. Purchases were made at gas stations in Harrisburg, throughout Pennsylvania and in Rhode Island.
During a 52-week period, Alexander made 29 trips from Rhode Island directly to Harrisburg, and 14 trips from Harrisburg directly to Rhode Island. Those trips are around 350 miles each way, taking about six hours.
An additional 44 trips cited Rhode Island as a point of departure or final destination with a stop along the way, like Philadelphia.
For most of the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Alexander drove a 2007 Chevrolet Impala. Fueleconomy.com reports the car drives 18 miles per gallon in city driving, and 28 mpg on highways. Going with the latter figure, a 350-mile trip uses 12.5 gallons of gas.
At the mid-December 2012 state average of $3.49, according to PennsylvaniaGasPrices.com, that’s $50.60 per Rhode Island-Harrisburg trip, one way.
Carey Miller, press secretary for the Department of Public Welfare, said that any out-of-pocket expenses Alexander pays for travel or vehicle taxes would not be considered public information.
Miller said that the cabinet position Alexander holds with the state is one where off-site work is typical.
“These executive-level positions require 24 hours a day, 7 days a week commitment, and also requires extensive travel and meeting with stakeholders on a daily basis,” Miller wrote in an email to PA Independent. “Fortunately with technology like (Blackberries) and laptops, Secretary Alexander is able to stay connected with staff and provide decisions for the department, when he cannot be here in Harrisburg.”
Indeed, the records show that when Alexander is in Harrisburg, it is not always on a Monday through Friday schedule.
Most often it is a four-day Harrisburg work week. The records show 28 weeks in the fiscal 2011-2012 year that started with travel from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania, with a return three days later.
Nine additional weeks show round-trips spanning five days. Six showed Alexander venturing from Rhode Island for a three-day work week in Harrisburg.
PA Independent obtained Alexander’s travel records through a Right-to-Know request. Several of these records show handwritten notes, like in August 2011 where commuter miles were totaled separately by hand. In records for November and December of 2011, the total number of travel days is written in the margins.
In 10 of the 12 monthly reports, travel miles are filed under commuter, personal or business use. Total commuter miles reported range from 1,489 miles to 3,481 miles per month.
In September 2011, for example, 2,354 out of 3,703 miles traveled in a state vehicle were dedicated to commute. Eight of those were within Harrisburg. The remainder indicated trips to and from Rhode Island.
The other 1,349 miles from September included travel to and from Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and within Harrisburg, classified under “Business.”
In November and March 2012, mileage totals were not specified for business or commuter use. The descriptions, though, indicate multiple trips directly from Rhode Island to Harrisburg and back.
In November, for example, there were 14 reported days of travel, half of which included trips to or from Rhode Island. Total miles traveled that month equaled 4,255.
Eric Epstein is a government-reform advocate in Harrisburg who runs Rock the Capital, a reform-minded group that is critical of how state officials spend taxpayer dollars. He said he finds it hard to believe that Gov. Tom Corbett couldn’t find a qualified Pennsylvanian to run DPW.
“It demonstrates that his heart is not in Pennsylvania,” he said. “I have nothing against Rhode Island, and I have nothing personally against the man, but the secretary of DPW is one of the most critical jobs in the state.”
Pennsylvania is diverse geographically, demographically and culturally, Epstein said. In many ways, it’s a big state to get to know.
“You just can’t give the job that type of attention when you’re on the road every weekend,” Epstein said.
Alexander earns $146,579 a year, according to the Department of Administration. DPW is one of the state’s largest departments by spending and staff, with a state budget of $10.5 billion this year and a staff of nearly 16,000.
Before he was appointed Pennsylvania’s DPW secretary at the start of this administration, Alexander served as Secretary of Health and Human Services in Rhode Island.
In Pennsylvania, budget tightening and initiatives to streamline programs have distinguished Alexander’s tenure. Earlier this year, DPW removed more than 650 people from food stamp rolls who were receiving benefits fraudulently from out-of-state. And the department has made reforms to training programs that aim to connect welfare recipients with jobs.
But the department continues to draw ire from special interests groups from time to time. This summer, social services providers rallied against the state following a county human services block grant proposal. More recently, the president of the United Way of Pennsylvania has called for a third-party review of department’s cuts to the budget that were made without legislative review.
The state has no residency requirement for cabinet jobs. But In August 2011, The Harrisburg Patriot-News quoted Corbett’s press secretary Kevin Harley as saying Alexander had plans to move his family to Pennsylvania.
More than a year later, administration officials would not say if they would like to see Alexander’s travel patterns change.
For other employees, the administration successfully reduced the size of the state vehicle fleet, and limit taxpayer-funded employee commutes.
Earlier this year, Corbett said the state fleet has 1,400 fewer cars than when he took office. Employees who were not meeting a monthly benchmark for state-related travel were stripped of their state-issued vehicles and reimbursed for business travel.
But, in the case of Alexander’s long commute, the decision on whether it’s justified is seemingly left up to the secretary.
“Secretary Alexander’s choice to move to Pennsylvania is a personal decision he must weigh with his family,” said Deputy Communications Director Christine Cronkright.
Contact Melissa Daniels [email protected]
— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]