Government

Iowa's auditor questions $40,000 in relocation benefits for patrol lieutenant who moved family farther away

The state auditor on Monday criticized $40,000 in relocation benefits that helped a veteran Iowa State Patrol supervisor move his family to a home farther away from his new assignment in western Iowa.

State Auditor Rob Sand concluded that there was no “public benefit” for taxpayers to cover closing costs and other expenses on the sale of Lt. Joel Ehler’s home in Adel.

Sand wrote in a report that the sale was more related to Ehler’s purchase of a new home in West Des Moines than his relocation to become the patrol’s district commander of Council Bluffs.

Sand’s office investigated the matter after the Associated Press reported on the allocation of benefits in May. Its findings contrast with those of an internal investigation by the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which found that the benefits were appropriate and that Ehler did nothing wrong.

Ehler had been stationed in Des Moines and living in Adel when he was assigned in June 2017 to lead the patrol office in Council Bluffs. He qualified for relocation benefits, in part because Iowa Department of Public Safety policy requires supervisors to live within 30 miles of the city to which they are assigned.

To satisfy that requirement, Ehler began renting a home in Avoca, near Council Bluffs. He stayed there during the week while returning to his family home more than 100 miles away in Adel on weekends.

The family sold its Adel home for $469,500 in June 2018 and moved to a new home in West Des Moines that was built on land they had acquired after his 2017 reassignment.

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That move took them farther away from Ehler’s new job, which was about 120 miles to the west. Nonetheless, Ehler claimed and the state paid $39,000 in closing costs on the sale and tax assistance, including a $14,000 commission for a real estate agent at a brokerage where Ehler’s wife also is an agent.

Ehler’s family told investigators that they moved to West Des Moines to a smaller lot because the three-acre property they had in Adel was too large for his wife to maintain in his absence, Sand’s report said.

Sand wrote that there is a “common-sense assumption” that when the public pays for a transferring employee to move that it will be within the new geographic area. He noted that the department’s residency policy is in place so that employees can quickly respond to calls when off-duty.

“Expenditures that go toward staff moving further away from their geographic duty assignment are contrary to (the policy) and the public interest,” Sand wrote.

Sand wrote that his concerns were heightened because a reimbursement form for the benefits did not list Ehler’s new address. A Department of Administrative Services employee who approved the form was unaware of that critical detail, the report said.

Sand recommended the department establish procedures allowing relocation expenses only for moves that help employees relocate to their new assignment.

The department disputed Sand’s findings in a response included in the report, saying the relocation benefits “served a significant and compelling public interest.” It said the state reimbursement policy does not dictate how employees must use those benefits.

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