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Bureaucrats see the world on Transit's dime

Single mothers struggling to pay their bills should sleep better knowing that the transit sales tax they paid at the grocery store allowed hundreds of city bureaucrats and politicians to travel.Over the last five years, the agency has sent over 130 people on 441 trips to locations in the US and abroad, including Canada and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The trips were ostensibly made for transit-related purposes. Creative Loafing has requested more information about the reasons for the trips.

Those who traveled are employees who work at mid-to-high level jobs at dozens of city and CATS departments including the city manager's office, the city attorney's office, engineering, corporate communications, community improvement, in addition to the planning commission, which is a joint city and county agency. Other travelers worked CATS departments including management, customer service, marketing and operations. Customer service representatives couldn't locate the names of at least 25 of those who went on the trips and thus couldn't verify their employment with city or county government.

Members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) also traveled on CATS' dime, including County Manager Harry Jones, Matthews Mayor Lee Myers, Davidson Mayor Randy Kincaid, Huntersville Mayor Kim Phillips and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Parks Helms.

So far, the travel expenses listed for the trips total $351,220, although it's still unclear whether the total cost CATS lists for each trip includes the full cost of the trip including airfare, hotel and expenses. CATS' budget comes from the half-cent sales tax for mass transit which voters passed in 1998, and which consumers pay every time they make a purchase in Mecklenburg County.

The cost of trips by CATS management alone cost over $100,000. CATS CEO Ron Tober took at least 27 trips, CATS Deputy Director Keith Parker took 15 trips, and CATS development administrator John Muth took 26 trips.

During the countywide campaign to pass the half cent sales tax five years ago, referendum promoters said the tax would cost county residents about $50 a year per person. That means that 7,024 Mecklenburg County residents have payed a year's worth of sales tax each to support CATS' all-on-board travel habits.

When reached for comment Monday, CATS spokesperson Olaf Kinard, who has taken 10 trips on behalf of CATS, said he couldn't immediately comment because he had to "go back and check the numbers."

Creative Loafing intern Karla Smith contributed to this article.

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