Rochester city staff says there's no benefit to tracking airline miles
Council member Molly Dennis has cited questions of alleged wrongdoing related to frequent-flier miles as a motivation for recent censure action by council.
ROCHESTER — A Rochester City Council member’s claim that city policy regarding frequent-flier miles accrued through city-funded travel violates state law became public this month.
“When I read the law — from my teaching background, I’m not an attorney — it seemed as though we were breaking the law,” Council member Molly Dennis said Wednesday.
Dennis raised the concern publicly for the first time as she sought to defend herself prior to a March 6 censure vote by the council. She continues to say she believes the censure, in part, was motivated by her raising questions about frequent-flier miles months earlier.
Discussion of the city’s travel policy stems from a November National League of Cities conference attended by Dennis, who said council members from other Minnesota cities told her they comply with regulations calling for any airline benefits accrued during city-related travel.
The policies adopted by several cities, including St. Paul , mirror a 1992 state law , requiring state employees and officials turn any credits or benefits from public-funded travel over to the state, if the airline policy allows.
At the same time, the law required cities, counties and other local government bodies to develop their own policies related to airline benefits, but it did not specifically require the policies follow state guidelines.
Dennis said she returned from the Kansas City, Missouri, conference and started raising questions, but did not take her accusations of wrongdoing public until March 6.
“It looks bad on the city,” she said of her reasoning to keep past discussions private.
Rochester’s policy states that any airline benefits received from city-funded travel “must be consistent with Minnesota state law” but does not outline how they can be used.
Rochester Travel Policy by randy on Scribd
Emails obtained by the Post Bulletin through a data request earlier this year show that City Administrator Alison Zelms pointed to the issue being dealt with according to the city’s travel policy, along with the reason for not tracking down credits from individual flights.
“Travel ‘miles’ are generally low value (perhaps a penny per mile, but it depends on the airline and miles expire depending on the airline, as well),” Zelms wrote on Dec. 9, 2022. “Trying to run down pennies per mile (all airlines accrue to individuals, not the city) would be more costly than any financial return.”
City Attorney Micheal Spindler-Krage said it would be difficult to say how much is spent on airline tickets each year, since logged employee reimbursements typically include all reimbursable expenses related to the approved travel.
The city’s 2023 travel and training budget is $846,307, but it includes funds for in-person and online conference and training fees, hotel rooms, meals and driving to events located within an acceptable distance. How the costs break down can vary.
In Dennis’ case, the airfare for a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., was approximately 10% of the $4,148 cost.
Fellow council member, Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, attended a shorter version of the event and saw the same $419 ticket price as 13% of the trip’s $3,190 cost.
Spindler-Krage said neither trip would likely accrue large frequent-flier miles.
“It is clear that the city is not missing out on any value related to employee frequent-flier miles,” he said, adding that any benefits accrued while flying on the airlines that serve Rochester International Airport cannot be transferred from an individual to a government entity, based on the airlines' policies.
When it comes to staff travel, airfare accounted for $636 of the $3,623 Zelms spent on travel for two events last year, and $597 was spent on air travel amid the $2,627 spent by Spindler-Krage to attend three training events.
Dennis specifically called out unnamed elected officials in her March 6 claim but later said she misspoke, citing the stress of the censure discussion. She said she has no information on how others have used potential frequent-flier miles.
In a Dec. 12, 2022, email to Dennis, Mayor Kim Norton said she has “used accumulated travel miles (both personal and work related) for work-related travel.”
Dennis said this week that the potential misuse exists.
“Every official that has banked frequent-flier miles that have been accumulated by taxpayer dollars can use them for their personal travel,” she said but acknowledged she has no evidence related to how past officials have funded travel and had no personal experience using frequent-flier miles.
She also said she has no tally to support her claim that “it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that we are stealing from taxpayers,” but she said she suspects much has been lost in the three decades since the state set its policy for state travel.
“Maybe I was off a couple numbers, but I guarantee you it’s not a small amount,” she said of the potential airline benefits lost since 1993.
The council member said the city should have adopted a similar policy at the time or adopted the practice of having one payer — the city — for all airline purchases, which would have put any credits into a city account, since many airlines, including those flying out of Rochester, don’t allow miles to transfer to government entities.
Spindler-Krage said the current travel policy, which calls prioritizing flights from Rochester to support the local airport as an economic asset, saves the city money on a regular basis.
“Particularly those who travel frequently, employees with personal Delta credit cards are receiving baggage fee waivers, an expense that the city would otherwise be responsible for,” he said, pointing out employees pay the annual fees on such cards out of their own pockets.
Spindler-Krage said it is his legal opinion that the city policy conforms with state law, and there is no indication that the city is under investigation related to its practices.
Post Bulletin investigative reporter Molly Castle Work contributed to this report.