Are State Employees Getting Paid to Sing? - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Are State Employees Getting Paid to Sing?

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"Like an auditor, assessing for the very first time" "Like an auditor, assessing for the very first time"
"Stop! In the name of fun" "Stop! In the name of fun"
Reagan Farr, revenue commissioner Reagan Farr, revenue commissioner
Drew Johnson, Tennessee Center for Policy Research Drew Johnson, Tennessee Center for Policy Research
"Well, goodbye, Pluto" "Well, goodbye, Pluto"

They're tunes about taxes -- written and performed at the expense of taxpayers.

State officials call them "training," but training for what?

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams has the videos that may have taxpayers singing the blues.

To the tune of "Hey Jude," one group sings, "Hey, dude, the check is in the mail."

The video shows state employees at work.

Another group dances to the music of "Eye of the Tiger," instead celebrating the "eye of the auditor."

But these state workers aren't just spending your tax dollars.

To the tune of "Redneck Woman," yet another group declares, "I'm a sales tax auditor."

They're also the folks in charge of collecting your taxes.

Another video shows a group of women, decked out in feathered boas and dancing to the tune of "Stop! In the Name of Love." Instead of love, they sing to the name of "fun."

The videos obtained by News Channel 5 Investigates aren't the best quality.

But they clearly show auditors and investigators from the Tennessee Department of Revenue, during a week away from the office for training -- and what Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr calls "team building."

"They are not skits just around parodies or fun," Commissioner Farr tells Phil Williams. "They are skits with the purpose of  delivering a message."

One group, apparently covered in black trash bags, takes the tune of "Hello, Dolly!" and turns it into "Goodbye, Pluto. Yes, goodbye, Pluto."

So what's the tax lesson from Pluto's loss of its planetary status?

Or from an auditor dressed in an aluminum-foil cone bra, reshaping "Like a Virgin" into "like an auditor."

Tax watchdog Drew Johnson, of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, can't find the lessons.

"The only lesson that I'm taking out of this is that the Department of Revenue loves to waste tax dollars," Johnson says.

To the music of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" another group sings about fuel taxes. "Burn, burn, burn."

Commissioner Farr says he wasn't in charge when these particular skits were done.

"This could have had a very valid business purpose," Farr tells Phil Williams.

"So what would that have been?" Williams asks.

"You know, there's all types of team building that our training office does."

It's all part of what the revenue department calls Team Week -- five days of training at Gaylord's Opryland Hotel. Last year, the total cost to taxpayers: almost $150,000.  (Below is a summary of costs.)

'Team Week'
Revenue Department Estimates

Hotel Rooms Meeting Rooms Speakers  Travel      Meals      Other      Total         
2005

$51,454

$4,955

$3,640

$25,221

$26,942

$2,694

 $114,905

2006

$63,189

$9,009

$2,925

$25,183

$34,276

$2,291

 $136,873

2007

$62,262

 $5,834

 

$25,908

$45,910

$2,300

 $142,287


Still another group sings, "We're working for the tax money on the chain gang."

Despite the song-and-dance routines, the commissioner says the Team Week schedules show there's also a lot of real training.

"It's a great opportunity for people to share their on-the-ground experience," he insists.

Johnson counters, "It's amazing to me, first of all, that it takes five days to get a message across."

To the tune of "In Da Club," a black-clad group raps, "Go. Go. Go, money. It's your tax day."

In fact, Johnson says a close look at the videos suggests those routines probably took a lot of time away from real state business.

"These are things that you can't slap together in half an hour," he observes. "These are obviously  videos that they worked on for hours and hours, if not days and days."

To the tune of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," one group pleads, "Please, please, let this be the last seminar for me."

"That shows you how seriously that they are taking this conference -- which is not at all," Johnson says. "They see it as as waste of their time."

Commissioner Farr responds, "You will always  have in an organization this size have employees that aren't interested in updating their  skills sets."

The question: will taxpayers see images like these as an innovative way to inspire the state's tax collectors -- or something very, very different?

The video was from 2006.

But, despite the budget crunch, there's another Team Week next month.

Drew Johnson's group argues the training could be carried across the state -- to the auditors --for a lot less money.

The commissioner, on the other hand, insists that having everyone together is the best way.

Still, he admits, in this letter to Phil Williams, that those team-building sessions could be much more focused on helping them to do their jobs better.

Here are excerpts from the commissioner's letter:

"Creation of the videos entailed approximately three working hours per participant, plus numerous after-hours collaborative meetings between employees.... Although I understand the importance of teambuilding and appreciate our Training Division's attempts to creatively establish unique exercises, I think there are better ways to achieve these goals.... I assure you that the feedback provided to me ... has been meaningful and incorporated into the evaluation of our departmental training."

And he promises that this year will be different.

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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