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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Volunteer Drivers Collect Tens-Of-Thousands In Mileage Reimbursements

Imagine driving your personal car for work so much that your boss cuts you a $10,000 mileage reimbursement check. That’s what happened recently at Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services.

But the person who got the check isn’t an employee. And she’s not the only one who’s logging high miles and collecting large reimbursements from DSHS. So far this fiscal year, the agency has reimbursed volunteer drivers more than $300,000.

A total payment of $10,672 was issued to Lavaughn Nuner last September. She drove nearly 19,000 miles over four months in her personal car.

So who is Lavaughn Nuner? Connie Lambert-Eckel, with Washington’s DSHS, said Nuner is a longstanding volunteer in the Spokane office who drives foster youth to court-ordered services. These could be visits with their biological parents or counseling sessions. Nuner is one of several DSHS volunteer drivers who log tens-of-thousands of miles shuttling youth across the vast expanses of eastern Washington.>

After a round of telephone tag and an exchange of text messages, Nuner stopped responding to requests for an interview. But based on travel records provided by the state, our analysis shows over the past decade, Nuner has requested roughly $300,000 in mileage reimbursements -- plus another $35,000 in per diem. Neither Nuner nor the agency would confirm this.

Racking up the miles

Consider just one day in Nuner’s volunteer life: March 5, 2012. Records show the day started at 7 a.m. at Nuner’s home in Medical Lake, Washington, near Spokane. She drove from:

  • Medical Lake to Colbert, Washington
  • Colbert to Cheney
  • Cheney to Spokane
  • Spokane to Chewelah roundtrip
  • Spokane to Chattaroy round trip
  • Spokane back to Chewelah
  • Chewelah home to Medical Lake

She returned home at 7:45 p.m. – after nearly 13 hours and more than 300 miles.

While that was an epic day, a 2012 internal audit of the volunteer driver program found “some volunteers frequently drove in excess of” eight hours a day -- increasing the risk of an accident. One unidentified volunteer exceeded eight hours of driving 80 percent of the time.

The audit resulted in a crackdown of sorts. Today, volunteer drivers are capped at eight hours behind the wheel per day. They also no longer qualify for per diem. And they have to get approval to change schedules.

Even so, these volunteers continue to rack up the miles. Records show in the first nine months of the fiscal year, the top three drivers for DSHS have already been reimbursed more than $20,000 each.

“That's a lot,” Lambert-Eckel said. “That’s a lot of driving. And that’s the need.”

Lambert-Eckel says she’d like to have more volunteers. But they’re hard to recruit. So the trips fall to the hard core drivers who are willing to log a lot of miles.

“They’re just generous of heart and spirit in an effort to help us serve kids and their families’ needs as effectively as we can,” Lambert-Eckel said.

Volunteer work or a part-time job?

But has this volunteer program morphed into something else? Jason Mercier is with the Washington Policy Center, a right-of-center think tank that watchdogs government spending.

“When you see reimbursements at the level that you can buy a brand new car, the spirit of being a volunteer comes into question,” he said.

Indeed, the audit in 2012 raised questions about the integrity of the program. It found some volunteer drivers changed schedules without agency approval. Internal emails reveal there was even a term for “selling a run,” even though no money was actually exchanged.

One longtime driver said she considers it a part-time job and the tax-free reimbursements help supplement her social security. But this driver also said it’s not just about the money. It’s about the kids.

Only one couple agreed to speak on the record. Anna and Ken Meigs are former foster parents in the Tri-Cities. They volunteered to drive a decade ago after they both retired. In a typical month they say they 3,000 - 6,000 miles. They’ve gone as far as Wyoming.

“We just traded off, a year ago, our 1996 Toyota Camry that had almost 500,000 miles on it,” said Ken.

Anna said over the years they’ve had their share of adventures. Once, a pregnant teen ran from them at a rest stop. Last winter, they hit black ice and spun off the road.

A chance to bond

Even so, they see volunteer driving as a win-win.

Credit Mary-Jeanne Smith
Longtime foster youth Andre Fayette poses with his foster mother Mary-Jeanne Smith.

“I just like to drive and we get to see a lot of country," Ken said. "And this way we get paid our mileage, we have a volunteer value for the state, a lot of times it saves the caseworker taking a state car, their time, driving the person over.”

And according to Andre Fayette, strong bonds can be forged during those long hours in the car.

“I’ve been in foster care in Washington state for about eight years,” he said.

Fayette said once-a-month for several of those years the same volunteer driver took him to see his biological sisters. It was a four-hour round trip.

“When you spend a lot of your life in foster care, you don’t have too many stable, adult relationships with people," he explained. "So it was nice having someone stable that you could just talk to on a regular basis.”

Fayette came to consider his driver like an aunt. He even invited her to his high school graduation.

As for the other states in the region, Idaho doesn’t rely on volunteer drivers. Oregon does use volunteers as a supplement to paid staff, but they are encouraged to use state motor pool vehicles. Washington’s DSHS says it has not analyzed that option -- or renting vehicles.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."