Public Dollars, Private Perks and a Bouquet of Criticism

Is it ever okay to buy get-well-soon flowers with taxpayer money?
November 5, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
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When is it appropriate to spend public dollars for "feel-good" kinds of employee benefits, such as flowers for an employee's sick wife?

Based on an onslaught of e-mail received here at the B&G Report, the answer is pretty close to a categorical, "Never." We had initially raised the question in a column last month. At the time, we called the idea of buying a hospital bouquet "a perfectly sensible use of public funds. A few bucks on flowers can buy an employee's hard work and loyalty for years. Forget about other factors. We think this is a smart investment -- easily as smart as handing out little plaques for performance."

We got an earful from B&G readers. A few people thought there might be some way to manage such nice touches, but they were a distinct minority. What's more, the managerial controls on such practices, it was pointed out repeatedly, would be an oversight nightmare. "Managers and others that spend taxpayer dollars have different levels of what they believe is necessary, reasonable and acceptable use of taxpayer money," wrote John Reidhead, director of Utah's Department of Finance. "Spending in this type of area could easily get out of hand and be abused."

But what if there were clear-cut guidelines that took the judgment out of managers' hands? Not so easy, it turns out. "I have trouble even contemplating the policy that would set out the guidelines," wrote Aaron Anderson, city administrator for Ely, Iowa. "'Flowers up to $X for a spouse or direct offspring who suffers a broken bone of an appendage. $X if diagnosed with a recurring chronic malady and $X if diagnosed with a terminal illness,' and so forth to ludicrous extremes to make sure it's not being abused in larger organizations."

Along the same lines, Cheryl Huddleston, human resources manager in Waterloo, Iowa, asked rhetorically, "And where does it end -- employee, spouse, children, significant other, hospitalization, death of family member, new baby, marriage?"

In fact, if citizens from coast to coast could only see the tone of the e-mails received, we bet they'd be mighty impressed by the absolute reverence with which public employees hold their responsibilities to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. "As trustees of public funds, public employees are held to a higher standard, are accountable to the public and have a duty to ensure that every dollar we receive is spent helping the public," wrote Dean Carothers, Union Steward for the Monterey County, California, Department of Child Support Services. Many others made much the same point. Added Caroline Lacey, HR manager of the Washington State department of commerce, "As a taxpayer, I'd hit the ceiling if I thought this was being done with my money."

Many correspondents indicated that there was nothing to stop the practice of sending flowers or other gifts to employees in certain circumstances -- but that the money should come from co-workers themselves. In fact, the point was raised multiple times that the gift would be considered more valuable coming from co-workers than a semi-anonymous governmental entity. "While I agree that flowers would be appreciated and would show how valuable the employee and their family are to the public entity, it is meaningless and wrong to do it with the public's tax dollars, particularly in this day and age," wrote Mark Poppler, financial officer for the Idaho State Tax Commission. "Do it with your own funds and it is truly a gesture of compassion."

Finally, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, it's pretty clear that the timing for any kind of gracious gestures is pretty awful. As Nancy Arias, an accountant in the systems support area for the clerk of Hillsborough County, Florida, wrote, "In this economy, when we are having to permanently reduce staff and the remaining are required to do with less, it seems there are better uses for this money."