PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Last year, the cost of going to a four year college increased by 6%. For many Americans, college loans are their number one debt, second only to their home mortgage. But the Contact 5 Investigators found hundreds of Palm Beach County employees are cashing in on free education, leaving one county leader asking why?
Over the past two years, taxpayers in Palm Beach County and along the Treasure Coast have paid a lot of money sending county government workers back to school.
"Promoting continuing education and trying to get our people educated, I don't think there's a downside to that all," said Palm Beach County Deputy Fire Chief Steve Dalai.
In Palm Beach County, since fiscal year 2009, taxpayers have spent more than $2.5 million so more than 1,000 county employees can get their college degree.
"I think its obligatory for management and organizations such as ours to assist their employees in advancing themselves because, one it's great for the employee and second, it's even greater for an organization like ours," said Human Resource Director, Wayne Condry.
The biggest spender? The Palm Beach County Sheriff's office, one of the county's largest departments.
Between FY 2009-2011, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office accounted for roughly 85% of all the county's tuition refund costs. Or, put simply, PBSO spent $2.1 million reimbursing its employees going back to school.
"It's a benefit," said PBC Clerk and comptroller, Sharon Bock who suspended her office tuition reimbursement program when the economy tanked.
"We haven't had it in 3 years," she said. Bock believes the tuition reimbursement program should be suspended countywide. She suggested the cut to county commissioners last summer. The majority didn't agree.
"You don't suspend a program that gives people more education to do the job they're supposed to be doing," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson.
But after reviewing tuition records, the Contact 5 Investigators found taxpayers are footing the bill for all kinds of classes, even the most basic classes.
A Palm Tran employee was refunded more than $1000 to take classes such as art and music appreciation.
A Palm Beach County Fire Rescue employee was reimbursed nearly $350 to take Afro-Caribbean Literature.
"It's an elective. As long as they got the degree that's what we're attempting to push," said PBC Deputy Fire Chief Delai.
According to county rules, employees can get money back as long as the class the are taking relates to their job or the degree they're pursuing.
"I took art appreciation, what does that mean to me today? I don't know. Does the taxpayer benefit from that, no," said Delai.
Classes like art and music appreciation are the kind of basic course county taxpayers haven been paying the cost of for years.
At the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, individual employees are racking up tens of of thousands of dollars in college tuition bills.
Records show one court specialist has been going back to school and getting reimbursed for it since 1999.
According to employee tuition records, the employee has been cashing in on free classes for an associate's degree, bachelor's degree, even doctorate. Her decade worth of coursework has cost county taxpayers nearly $35,000.
A supervising officer has also been going back to school on and off since 1999, taking college courses that range from the History of Jazz to the Dynamics of Faith. County taxpayers have spent nearly $40,000 so he can earn his degree.
Turns out, the high cost of tuition refunds can really add up at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office especially when you consider that while most county departments offer their employees up to $1,800 per year for tuition, county deputies can get up $5,000 per year for college tuition. If you are upper management, the benefit more than doubles. Management level employees at PBSO are entitled to get up to $12,000 per year to go back to school.
The Contact 5 Investigators compared the benefit to other sheriff's offices of similar size across the state. PBSO offered up to quadruple what most other sheriff's offices across the state offer its employees.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office wouldn't let us speak to their college-bound employees, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw also declined our request for an on camera interview.
But, Bradshaw did point out, in 2011, tuition refunds accounted for less than 2% of his total budget and just over 13% of eligible employees took advantage of it.
His spokesperson, Teri Barbera, sent us the following statement,
"In order to provide the best possible service to the public the Sheriff's Office must have highly trained and educated personnel. To that end the Agency offers
some financial assistance to those who qualify, and sees this as an investment that the community will benefit from. A citizen deserves the best trained, best educated Deputy to respond to their needs."
"Do we believe in education for our employees? Absolutely," said Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock. "The question becomes though, should the taxpayers be underwriting this tuition or this education during a down revenue kind of environment?"
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