Thursday, September 13, 2007

CMWD Rejcets Roney Mileage Claim

Casitas board rejects manager’s $61,000 in costs for commuting

By Daryl Kelley
Casitas Municipal Water District directors quickly rejected Wednesday a long-shot request by the district’s recreation manager for about $61,000 for driving his car to work from Los Angeles County since 2002.
Board members said Brian Roney’s claim for payment for nearly 158,000 miles he has driven from his Santa Clarita home to Oak View since he was hired just didn’t make sense.
“To my knowledge, there is absolutely no policy here to allow an employee to get paid for driving his own vehicle to and from work,” said board President Russ Baggerly before directors voted unanimously to reject the claim.
Roney, who is paid $118,000 a year to run the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, allowed that he hadn’t really expected the board to cut a $61,000 mileage check.
“This is a very unusual item,” he told the board. “I’m not going to be naive and say (I thought) the district was going to cut a check for the full amount.”
But he didn’t specify what he thought would be a fair amount to settle the dispute.
And later, in a brief interview, he said he was not surprised by the board’s decision. But he refused to discuss what he had expected the board to do. “No comment,” he said, before walking away.
Roney told the board that he was treated unfairly when he was neither assigned a district vehicle nor paid for his daily commute, while three other managers of similar rank and responsibilities were provided with district cars seven days a week.
“It may appear to be about money,” he said. “But it’s really about fairness and equity.”
But the board wasn’t buying it.
Director Bill Hicks said that since Roney was told when he was hired in April 2002 that he would have no company car, nor be paid for his 126-mile daily commute, he had no reasonable claim today for past expenses.
“To go back to the past, when you knew the car wasn’t included, I have a hard time with that,” Hicks said.
General manager Steve Wickstrum, who took over for longtime top executive John Johnson in June, told the board that he had just spoken with Johnson about his conversation with Roney when hiring him.
“All this was much to his amazement,” Wickstrum said.
According to Wickstrum, Johnson told Roney during the hiring process that even the general manager was not paid for his commute to work. “Johnson shared his story of driving from Simi Valley to Oak View every day. He did not receive a car nor did he receive vehicle mileage for travel from work to home,” Wickstrum said.
And Wickstrum told the board that it must be careful not to set a precedent by approving Roney’s claim that other workers could follow.
“God forbid we agree with that concept,” Baggerly agreed, “because there are people who have been working here for more than 30 years.”
Casitas lawyer Robert Sawyer said that, in genera,l U.S. Internal Revenue Service policy does not recognize travel from home to work to be a business expense workers can claim as a deduction.
By Casitas policy, employees are required to submit claims for mileage within 30 days. But Roney said he was not aware that he was eligible for mileage for his commute until he reviewed district policies in June, shortly after Wickstrum was appointed.
Roney now claims he should be paid for 157,852 miles he’s driven since April 2002, and for which he’s received no reimbursement. He said he was paid $1,358 for 2,799 miles he did claim while on district business.
But Wickstrum told the board that Roney had misread district policy and the claim should be denied since there was no specific reference to compensation for commuter miles in Roney’s contract.
The policy Roney is relying upon in making his claim relates only to district vehicles, not personal ones, and Roney has never been assigned a district vehicle, Wickstrum said.
But Roney cited two documents in making his case.
He maintained that when Casitas offered him a management job five years ago, the offer letter indicated that miles driven with his personal vehicle were reimburseable. Indeed that March 27, 2002 letter to Roney said: “You will be reimbursed mileage for the miles driven in your personal car ...”
But it makes no reference to commuting miles.
Roney also cites district policy as it relates to “Use of District Vehicles.”
That policy says that district vehicles will only be driven as assigned by the general manager. And it specifically recognizes that four top management positions, including Roney’s “are not limited to a 40-hour week.”
“With respect to these employees, travel to and from work shall be deemed to be official district business and vehicles assigned to each of these employees” can be used during off-duty hours and to commute to work, the policy says.
While Wickstrum argued that this policy pertains only to district vehicles, Roney maintained that it should apply to his circumstance because previous general manager Johnson denied his request for use of a district vehicle every year “due to disagreements with the previous park services manager.”
“At the last meeting I had with (Johnson), he directed me to ‘take it up with the new gm.’,” Roney wrote in a memo to Wickstrum.
Under board questioning, Roney acknowledged that he hasn’t been called in on emergencies very often. He also said that when he was called in, a district vehicle was available to him at the front gate of the recreation area.
Baggerly noted that if Roney were called in, he would qualify for mileage reimbursement. And, in fact, Roney said he had made such claims in the past.
Baggerly maintained that Roney was cobbling together various parts of district policy to try to make his case.
“In order to get any possibility of that,” Baggerly said, “you are going to have to squeeze together disparate sentences to try to make it work.”
And it didn’t, the board decided.

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