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November 16, 2016

City controller: Tuition reimbursement program wasted estimated $1 million

Audits Tuition
Philadelphia City Hall Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Philadelphia City Hall

An audit of a program that helps Philadelphia employees to obtain college educations found that an estimated $1 million in taxpayer money has been wasted, the Office of the Controller said.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz announced Wednesday that the Philadelphia's Tuition Reimbursement Program has been mismanaged due to inadequate oversight.

The audit examined the program's records from July 2011 through March 2016. During that time, 27 former employees received tuition assistance despite not completing the required two years of service in their city posts. That totaled $100,000 in lost finances.

As per city policy, anyone who leaves a position within one year of receiving a tuition reimbursement must return all payments, and those who leave between one and two years must repay a prorated amount.

“It is unfortunate that a few employees abused a program that helps the city maintain a highly-skilled and well-educated workforce,” Butkovitz said.

The office also found funds from the program were incorrectly disbursed for full tuition bills when additional financial aid was obtained by some employees, as well as for classes that employees failed and books not covered by policy. The program wasted $45,000 because of these methods.

The controller's office said the city's program provides a mutual benefit for the improvement of the city and the advancement of employees. Three of the four most commonly pursued degrees by city employees are bachelor's degrees in criminal justice by police officers, master's degrees in public safety by firefighters and master's degrees in civil engineering by Philadelphia Water Department employees.

However, the audit questioned nearly $840,000 in payments for employees taking classes unrelated to their job responsibilities. Two examples provided by the office were a police officer pursuing a business administration degree and a correctional officer obtaining a degree in culture, science and technology.

Butkovitz urged the city to adopt policies that proved successful other U.S. cities like Baltimore, Phoenix and Pittsburgh with similar programs.

“Other cities have taken a much stricter course with their tuition reimbursement programs,” Butkovitz said. “There is no reason why Philadelphia cannot duplicate their policies and establish a program with greater oversight.”

His recommendations include establishing annual limits for reimbursements, barring new employees from using the program for the first year of employment and creating a city-wide board to oversee the program.