Created: November 03, 2019 10:13 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - A state agency shelled out thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for a mandatory meeting that included laser tag, bowling and arcade games.
On Thursday, Sept. 26, the parking lot outside of Main Event in Albuquerque was packed with cars driven by state government workers. The 4 Investigates team documented more than 100 state employees from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration inside the family entertainment venue.
The employees were at Main Event for the “All Hands Event” which is billed by the agency as a full day of training and team-building. In this case, it also included arcade games, billiards, bowling and laser tag.
During the time WCA employees were off-site, every one of the agency’s government offices were shut down to the public.
The KOB 4 Investigates team obtained receipts of the event which reveal the State of New Mexico paid nearly $12,000 to pay for the venue, the games, the food and the keynote speaker. The agency also paid the expense for some employees to travel to Albuquerque from all over the state, including: Hobbs, Las Cruces and Farmington.
“We chose this venue this year because we felt it gave us the best bang for our buck. It had everything we’re looking for,” said WCA deputy director Verily Jones.
Jones was previously acting director of the WCA when she decided on Main Event as the venue. She has since been resumed her position as deputy director.
Reporter: When you see laser tag, you see bowling, you see state employees and this is basically being footed by tax payer dollars – do you think this is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars?
Jones: “I do. We do a team building and training every year and we want our staff to feel appreciated. We want our staff to know we appreciate the work that they do.”
This is the first year the agency has held its annual training at Main Event. Last year, it was held at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History – which cost in total about $5,000 less than the meeting at Main Event.
“We don’t have a room big enough within the agency to house everyone and so we always go off-site every year so it’s a challenge to find a location that can hold that many people and has accommodations for the other things we need for that training and team building,” said Jones.
The 4 Investigates team shopped around for to compare venues for similar sized meetings. Main Event charges about $3,300 for the room and games alone (no food). At state-owned buildings at UNM, renting a ballroom for the day starts at about $460.
For state lawmakers who spend months counting every penny and carving out the state budget, some see problems with this type of spending.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom who is chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
“What are we paying for? Are we paying for people to be trained or are we paying them to learn how to play games? I don’t know – I’m not close enough to what was actually on that agenda for the day but I certainly think it’s a poor decision to have a meeting there,” said Rep. Lundstrom.
While the lawmakers the 4 Investigates team spoke with do not believe there’s anything illegal about the expenses in question, Rep. Lundstrom has other concerns.
Reporter: The idea that they would shut down their offices and their services to the public – what are your thoughts on that?
Rep. Lundstrom: “I think it’s inappropriate. I think that the State of New Mexico has a responsibility to be open during regular business hours and if they can’t be there, there has to be some sort of accommodation made.”
However, WCA deputy director Jones said she stands by her decision.
“The training portion was still there – the team building was very successful and I feel that the event was a success,” said Jones.
When asked whether Jones would consider using Main Event again for a government meeting in the future, she said the decision-making for trainings is now up to someone else to make next year.
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