News Column

City employee credit card use questioned

February 24, 2014

By Pat Kimbrough, The High Point Enterprise, N.C.

Feb. 25--HIGH POINT -- When city employees dine out at upscale restaurants on the taxpayer's dime, is there a legitimate business purpose? Why have some meal charges racked up by city employees been budgeted as office supplies?

City Council members said examples of both have occurred, and they grilled city staff about them Monday during a special meeting of the council's Finance Committee.

At issue is the city's procurement card, or P-card, program, in which about 365 of High Point's roughly 1,400 employees use city-issued credit cards for what staff says are work-related purchases.

Some council members questioned some of the expenditures, particularly for meals. As a result, staff changed the P-card policy, which now prohibits charges for meals by employees within Guilford, Davidson, Forsyth and Randolph counties. P-card holders traveling on city business beyond the four-county area are still permitted to buy meals, but cannot spend more than $40.

Councilman Foster Douglas requested several years' worth of P-card records because he said he had questions about the safeguards and accountability measures used to monitor the cards.

Douglas found that employees spent $4.7 million on P-card purchases in the 2009-10 fiscal year and $4.5 million in fiscal year 2010-11. City officials confirmed that P-card expenditures typically total about $3.75 million to $4 million per year. The Enterprise incorrectly reported in a previous story that $375,000 to $400,000 per year is spent through the card system.

City officials defend the program as a necessary tool that allows employees to make small-dollar purchases necessary for their jobs without going through a bureaucratic maze of red tape. Many other local governments besides High Point use P-cards.

But it was some of the meals charged with P-cards that got council members' attention.

Councilman Jim Davis said he found instances in the P-card records of The City Project staff and board members charging meals at restaurants like Liberty Steakhouse & Brewery and Emerywood Fine Foods.

The organization, which is charged with leading revitalization efforts in the inner city, is technically a nonprofit, but Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe's salary is paid by the city.

"Those are pretty nice places," said Davis. "It's somewhat unfair to other nonprofits in town that (Fuscoe) was able to take her board out on the city's dime. My point was, that's her board, not a potential client."

City officials said they did not have an estimate, as yet, on how much of the total amount spent with P-cards was for meals. Davis said he thinks the policy change prohibiting charges for local meals could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

"The food thing just stood out; it was just so obvious that wasn't city business," said Councilman Jeff Golden.

Davis also questioned how city staff accounts for meal expenditures with P-cards in the city budget.

"We found meals credited to the office supply budget in some departments. How can that be legitimate?" he asked.

The amounts of some expenditures also raised hackles among some council members. Douglas said he uncovered instances where $12,000 was spent in one day on a P-card.

"To me, a small item is, I go to Walmart when I have to buy plumbing supplies," he said.

City Financial Services Director Jeff Moore said this expenditure was probably by city warehouse or library staff, which sometimes have legitimate expenses that total this much.

Moore said staff can waive the $5,000 limit on P-cards under such circumstances.


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Source: High Point Enterprise (NC)

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