Terri Bales has traveled all across the United States and to Canada aboard a motorcycle. But she doesn’t need to hop on a Harley to cover the distance she’s traveled outside the TDCJ Travel Office in Huntsville over the past 25 years. She doesn’t because Bales has spent her entire career in the office responsible for keeping the agency on the move.
“We do the travel for the entire agency,” Bales said. “We do travel vouchers, we do airlines, we do car rentals, and we do hotels. We do any kind of travel that you could possibly want to do.”
“When she came back, they just kept me on,” Bales said. “They never told me to go home, so I just stayed.”
Bales started out as a clerk in what was then still part of the Cashier’s Office and staffed by just three people. For years, she alone processed all travel claims by hand. But back then the state’s criminal justice system had not yet been consolidated and the office received far fewer vouchers than those handled by its six staff members today.
Today, travel vouchers are keyed into the state’s Lone Star financial system on computers and sent electronically to the Comptroller’s Office in Austin for payment. About 90 percent of the vouchers processed by Bales’ auditors are mileage vouchers that parole officers submit once a month to cover the fuel costs they incur while driving their personal vehicles on the job. And with today’s high gas prices, reimbursement requests from parole officers can be sizable, sometimes topping $1,000 a month.
“It’s extremely important that we get them in here and we get them out because gas is so expensive,” she said. “They have to have that money to pay their gas bills for the next month.”
Bales describes herself as a stickler for the travel rules, but also admits to having “a soft spot” for employees faced with high credit card bills because of the miles they put on their vehicles on behalf of the agency.
“Employee mileage is real important to me, especially when the money is coming out of an employee’s hip pocket,” she said. “I want to do the right thing, and I’m going to do the right thing for the agency. But I’m still an employee, and I could be that parole officer that travels every day of the month. I could be that person, and I would want someone to care enough about me to see that I’m not left hanging. So we do everything we can possibly do to move those vouchers.”
Vouchers for overnight travel account for much of the remaining workload in the office. Bales said they are normally audited within five days and that an employee can expect an electronic deposit within just a few days thereafter. Mileage vouchers are usually paid within three weeks, she said.
That’s not the case, however, if an employee is vague in justifying his or her travel on vouchers.
“The biggest mistake that people make is not justifying their travel,” Bales said. “When you justify your travel, you can’t just say that you went to Austin for a meeting. You have to show how your travel has met the legal responsibility of the state.”
In that vain, Bales said employee should know that travel vouchers are not randomly audited by her staff. Every word of every voucher, rather, is read and analyzed.
“We read every word,” Bales said assuredly. “That’s why it takes a little time, because we read every word. “We’re not always popular, and, of course, everyone thinks that their vouchers aren’t paid fast enough. But if they only knew how many we had to process.”
Besides keeping the agency moving the past quarter century, Bales counts her compilation of the agency’s first comprehensive travel guide in 1997 as a highlight of her ongoing career, a career during which she has seen the Travel Office rise from relative obscurity.
“Travel used to be a relatively minor function of this agency,” she said. “But now that we’re so big, travel is now a very vital part of this agency, it’s the heartbeat of this agency. That’s because you can’t do your job unless I’m sitting here doing my job. So it’s become an important role. For the agency to continue on its mission, we have to be dedicated to what we do.”
Even with 25 years under her belt, Bales has no estimated time of departure from the Travel Office.
“When I came to TDCJ it was a privilege to work here, and it is still a privilege,” she said. “It’s my choice to be here, and I’m here because I love what I do. As long as they’ll keep me, I’m here.”