TALLAHASSEE — Florida's elder affairs chief has racked up nearly $70,000 in travel bills in less than three years, much of it by driving his car between the capital and Orlando, where Douglas Beach owns a home and where his wife lives.
But his colleagues around the state say the cost is worth it: They praise Beach for being accessible and well informed.
Beach, secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs, has been reimbursed $69,000 since 2007, including $32,000 for nearly 72,000 work-related miles driven in his Ford Explorer. That's the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe nearly three times.
"One of my requirements in federal law as well as in state statute is to be the chief advocate for seniors in the state of Florida," Beach said. "And I don't think you can do that behind a desk in Orlando or Tallahassee."
Beach, who earns $120,000 a year, ran Orlando's aging agency before taking the state job. He oversees a budget of about $700 million and said his travel helps him connect with 11 regional area agencies on aging that contract with the state to provide meals, in-home care, transportation and other services to Florida seniors.
"He's been accessible," said Max Rothman, director of the Area Agency on Aging in Miami, who estimated that Beach has visited his agency four to six times this year. "Generally, I think he's tried to make the department responsive."
Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, a member of the Senate budget committee that oversees Elder Affairs, said Beach is knowledgeable and reliable. "You have confidence in the information that he's giving you," Rich said. "He knows his job."
Sally Gronda, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for Pinellas and Pasco counties, also praised Beach's communication and accessibility. "I think he's really doing a very good job," Gronda said. "I have his cell phone programmed into my cell phone."
Beach, 50, who jokingly calls himself a "recovering economist" and has a doctorate in economics from North Carolina State, is a former deputy director of Ohio's elder affairs agency.
He's the second top-tier appointee in Gov. Charlie Crist's administration whose commuting reflects a pattern of travel between Tallahassee and a city where he owns a home, with weekend stays at the home subsidized by taxpayers.
Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman has charged taxpayers $44,000 in official travel, including nearly $20,000 for regular commercial air flights between Tallahassee and Tampa. Peterman's wife and four children still live in St. Petersburg, where Peterman preaches Sundays at the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church.
Travel vouchers show that on more than 80 occasions, Beach spent at least some time in Orlando, near his Winter Springs home. He said he also rents an apartment in Tallahassee.
As a comparison, Peterman has averaged about $1,800 per month in travel expenses, while Beach has averaged $2,100 per month during his 33-month tenure.
With the state mired in a severe budget crunch, the Legislature instructed state departments to allow travel only "critical to each agency's mission." Two weeks ago, Crist's chief of staff reinforced that point in a memo to all agency chiefs, with a reminder that "every effort should be taken to limit the costs of such mission-essential travel."
About half the time, records show, Beach used Orlando as a staging area for work-related visits to South Florida, Tampa Bay or the Jacksonville area. The rest of those trips included events only in the greater Orlando area and nearby Brevard County.
Beach said he travels so much so he can visit the Area Agency on Aging in several high-population counties south of Interstate 4, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Fort Myers, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.
"Any time I'm going down that way, it goes through Orlando," Beach said. To avoid costly hotel stays, he added, "I'll pass through Orlando, I'll stay at home, and then I'll go to South Florida."
Beach said a Crist aide suggested he rent cars more often to save money. But he said a scary experience in a small car after a hurricane in 2008 changed his mind.
"I hydroplaned," Beach said. "Scared the bejesus out of me. So what I drive is a four-wheel-drive Explorer. I'm losing money. … But it's safe, and I feel like I can get to my appointments."
Crist has ordered his inspector general to conduct a review of Peterman's travel, but he has declined to say whether Peterman exercised good fiscal judgment.
As for Beach's travel, Crist said: "Before we pass judgment, we have to have the opportunity to review what those expenditures are about."
Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.