The town of Pima has paid out an undisclosed amount of money for an employee tuition reimbursement program using public funds not budgeted for that purpose.
This information came to light after this newspaper legally obtained a recording of an executive session of the Town Council’s Aug. 18 meeting.
Meeting minutes lists those in attendance as Town Manager Vernon Batty; Mayor Dale Rogers; Vice-Mayor Sherrill Teeter; council members Brian Paul, C.B. Fletcher and Lucas Hoopes, and Town Clerk Cody Marshall.
During the session, Batty reported that the town had been footing the bill for full or partial tuition toward degrees unrelated to employee’s job fields for an undetermined period.
Batty, who started as town manager in October 2021, said he became aware of the issue when a Pima Police officer presented the town a tuition bill for $4,500.
“I’m not really happy that he didn’t come to me and just say, ‘Hey, this is what’s been going on. Are we still OK?’” he said.
“We did pay for him in December since I’ve been here, but I didn’t know about that,” Batty said.
He said that payment represented approximately 30 percent of a semester’s tuition.
He also reported the officer told him the town had paid for his bachelor’s degree.
“Obviously, he’s not getting his MBA to stay as a Pima town cop,” Batty said. “We’re paying for him to go do his next job.”
Batty also said he believed the town had paid for former Town Manager Sean Lewis’ bachelor’s degree and real estate license. Lewis resigned in August 2021 after he admitted to using town credit and debit cards for personal use.
Lewis paid the town back.
Batty said he consulted with the town’s attorney, Tosca Henry, who was present at the Aug. 18 meeting via phone, and learned the tuition payments were illegal.
“It’s a gift of public funds,” he said. “It’s illegal to pay for any of it.”
Article 9, Section 7, of the Arizona Constitution stipulates, “Public funds are to be expended only for public purposes and cannot be used to foster or promote purely private or personal interests of any individual.”
The state’s General Accounting Office notes on its website that this section also prohibits the giving individuals gifts, loans and such. State agencies are responsible for determining that the public benefit is substantially equivalent to or greater than the cost. This documentation must be maintained for audit and record retention purposes.
“I’m not real happy about it,” Batty said. “It’s my intention to stop that altogether. I don’t think we have any kind of policy in our town code that allows for any of that.”
Furthermore, he argued, if everyone employed by the town decided to take classes simultaneously, “it would bankrupt the town.”
One councilman volunteered that fire and police training, which the town covers expenses for, are mandated. Degrees are not.
“I’ve been on the council for six years,” another councilman said. “It’s the first I ever knew that we paid for Sean’s or anyone else’s education.”
“This is the first time I’ve heard of it,” Batty said. “I didn’t know anything about it.”
Conversation ensued over whether the town should adopt a policy to support town employees with education fees. In the future, it was proposed, people would need to apply for tuition assistance and monies would be given at the approval of the council.
“OK, well, I’ll start looking into something,” Batty responded. “This just came up three days ago.”
“Two days ago,” another councilmember said.
Eleven minutes into the recording, the topic switched to agenda item one, covering the property ownership dispute between the town of Pima and Dustin “Dusty” Luster.
While that agenda item was brought out of closed session, the topic of tuition payments for employees was not discussed in public. Meeting minutes confirm there was “no motion or public discussion on this item.”
This newspaper contacted Batty on Tuesday to clarify issues raised in the recording.
“I did look into it, but I don’t remember,” Batty said when asked how long tuition payments have been made for employees.
He responded similarly when asked about the total dollar amount paid for employee tuitions.
“Off the top of my head I don’t remember,” he said.
“I can’t talk about what was said in executive session,” he added.
When asked why the agenda item qualified as a closed-session matter, he said it was because the name of the police officer was used.
“We were talking about an individual,” he said.
Nevertheless, Batty did ultimately acknowledge the issue was more about policy than personnel.
“What it boils down to is it is a policy decision,” he said.