City of Decatur credit card holders often dine on the taxpayer dime
This story has been updated.
The city of Decatur paid the bills on 52 credit cards issued to city employees in 2015. There were roughly 2,800 transactions amounting to more than $400,000 in charges.
Records show that city employees often used their city-issued cards to purchase meals. There were other purchases that raised questions about how the city tracks credit card spending. While the city has defended all of the transactions, questions from Decaturish prompted city staff to reexamine Decatur’s credit card policies and practices.
“If we need … to make tweaks to the policy that only makes us better,” City Manager Peggy Merriss said. “We’ve never wanted to not be better at what we do and you’ve got to be open to learning and revising and doing better.”
William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, called the city’s credit card spending “an abuse of taxpayer dollars.”
“There’s a lot of personal use it would seem with credit cards without a lot of details or backup,” Perry said. “I think one of the biggest abuses of public trust is improper spending of taxpayer dollars.”
In December 2015, City Commissioners approved changes to the credit card rules, tightening the controls over spending. Decaturish filed a records request earlier this year, and paid nearly $250 in retrieval fees for monthly credit card statements and purchase justifications for 2015. Hans Utz, who writes a column on government finance for Decaturish, helped us organize and analyze the data. Utz said the problem lies with the city’s policy, not its employees.
“From what I’ve seen of the data, this looks like a problem of policy, not employee behavior,” Utz said. “It is important to distinguish between employees violating a policy versus employees complying with a policy that may need revision. This appears to be the latter, and the city likely needs to tighten its policies and be far more explicit about what is or is not allowed, and be very transparent with the public about the justification of what they allow.”
The records show that the city employees spent more than $42,000 on food in 2015. While some of the spending made sense, like money spent on food while traveling or large meals purchased for office parties and dinners before City Commission meetings, many of the purchases were individual meals at local restaurants. Often, these were justified as working lunches. While dining in the metro area, city employees spent more than $5,500 in purchases less than $50. The bulk of these purchases, about $4,000, were made in the city of Decatur.
The records also show:
– City Commissioners weren’t the biggest spenders when it came to using credit cards, but their transactions did raise some questions. City Commissioner Scott Drake spent money at a business where he has a financial interest, the Decatur Pure Station. Former City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham racked up $859 in charges, but some of her transactions provided few details about her spending. Drake defended his purchases. Cunningham, who resigned in 2015, has not responded to questions about them.
– In some instances city employees accidentally used their cards for personal purchases, all of which were reimbursed to the city, according to Merriss. Thieves also managed to get their hands on the card information. There were about $1,800 in fraudulent charges on city cards 2015, all of which were credited back to the city’s account.
– Georgia cities with comparable populations have drastically different policies than Decatur’s. Food was purchased rarely, if it was purchased at all, and card use was limited to a handful of employees.
– Approximately $4,800 of the purchases listed in the records didn’t have a justification for the expense. The city has revisited those purchases and has located receipts for most of them. The city is still looking for the receipts for approximately $600 of those purchases.
Giving the city credit
Merriss said the city has issued credit cards to commissioners and city employees since the 1990s. The city is only required to keep purchase records for seven years, Merriss said. The city said it would charge more than $2,000 to produce records for the last seven years, and unlike the 2015 data, it would be much more difficult to organize.
“We began the electronic reporting system in October 2014,” Merriss said. “Before that the system was manual and paper based. Therefore we cannot provide you a report similar to the last one you received for any period before October 2014.”
When City Commissioners revised the purchasing rules for credit cards in December, Assistant City Manager Andrea Arnold said commissioners have used the cards infrequently over the years.
“The City Commissioners are not big users of the credit card,” Arnold said. “We do issue them. There are times when commissioners and staff alike need to use them. Use is sporadic at best.”
Indeed, City Commissioners don’t use the cards as often as city staff, the records show. But the records show that card use was far from “sporadic.” According to Decaturish’s analysis of 2015 records, the cards were used on a regular basis to buy items necessary for conducting city business, in addition to meals.
Food is a large part of life in Decatur. The city’s restaurants frequent “best of” lists. City employees frequented restaurants and often had the city’s credit card in tow.
Merriss spent $2,529 on food. Of that, about $1,000 was spent on meals for large groups. The rest was spent mostly on lunch with city employees or City Commissioners. In one instance, Merriss reimbursed the city with a $128 check after using her card to buy a birthday meal for herself and two other employees.
Merriss defended the practice of using the cards to buy food, something that officials with other cities say is a rare occurrence.
“If it’s a business lunch, it serves the business purposes of the city,” Merriss said. “There are times when I will take other city employees to lunch. Mainly it’s the quietest, most time-intensive place we can have a meeting.”
She also said the city encourages using the credit cards to buy lunch within the city limits.
“We want to also make sure people are making [purchases] as absolutely hyper local as they can, because that’s an absolutely important part of supporting the business community,” Merriss said.
According to the records, the city made about $22,500 worth of food purchases in Decatur using the credit cards. Other cities Decaturish spoke to said buying non-travel related food with city-issued credit isn’t typical. A couple of the city managers laughed when asked if they ever spend their city-issued credit cards for food.
Sugar Hill City Manager Paul Radford said, “I use my personal credit cards or cash for that … If I’m going to lunch, it’s my responsibility to pay for it.” The city of Sugar Hill’s population is about 20,000 people.
Butch Sanders, the city manager of Snellville, said that meal purchases there have to be approved in advance. Snellville’s population is about 19,000 people.
In Griffin, which has a population of about 23,000 people, city employees can buy meals while traveling and ask the city for reimbursement.
Diane McNabb is first vice president of the Georgia Government Finance Officers Association and the Accounting and Reporting Manager for the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. She said cards in Cherokee County may be used for food, “if it was for a reasonable purpose.” She said the cards are not simply used, “to go and get lunch today.”
“We try to keep a handle on that, because it can be abused,” McNabb said.
Commissioners have used the cards primarily on out-of-town trips, like the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) Convention and City Commission retreats.
Commissioner Scott Drake used his credit card to fill up his vehicle at the Decatur Pure Station. As previously reported, Drake has a financial interest in the gas station. Drake used his card there twice in 2015: He spent $63 in June, and $51 in March. Those transactions appear to violate the city’s ethics ordinance, which forbids city officials from using their public office for private gain.
Drake defended his purchases.
“I personally feel I followed the rules and guidelines for using the city credit card for the purchase of gas for a city-related trip,” Drake said. “You have three gas stations in Decatur. I picked the one that actually supports the community through donations to the Decatur Education Foundation, Decatur Booster Club, Decatur Business Association, and just about any school or charity group that wants silent auction gift cards. Regardless of my affiliation with the Decatur Pure Station, I think I picked the right one to buy gas from.”
Perry, the government ethics watchdog, said Drake’s explanation isn’t sufficient.
“The problem is you can’t say, ‘Regardless of my relationship.’ If you profit from that business, it’s a conflict of interest,” Perry said. “If he profits, there’s a conflict of interest, especially because, as he points out there are other stations that provide gas, so it’s not like he’s a sole-source provider. I mean really it’s incumbent on public officials to remain beyond reproach and that just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Information about the city’s Ethics Ordinance and Ethics Committee isn’t easily accessible on the city’s website. A search through archives of City Commission meetings shows that in March of 2015, commissioners briefly discussed adding members to the Ethics Committee because one member – Davison Philips – has passed away. The committee hasn’t held a meeting since it was appointed in 2001. The other two members of the Ethics Committee at the time were former mayors Elizabeth Wilson and Walt Drake, Scott Drake’s father. Mayor Patti Garrett said Walt Drake no longer serves on the committee, due to the potential conflict of interest, and the city is looking for a replacement.
According to the credit card records, former mayor Wilson apparently had a meal with former City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham in April of 2015 at Parkers on Ponce, a local steak house. The cost of the meal was $89, records show. The meeting description simply says, “Meeting with Mayor Wilson.”
Like other commissioners, Cunningham spent money to attend Georgia Municipal Association Convention and a city retreat. Unlike other commissioners, however, Cunningham spent more money on meals in and around Decatur. In February of 2015, she spent $58 on dinner at Café Lily. The justification simply says “dinner” with no further explanation. She spent $66 at Kimball House in January of 2015 and justification was listed as, “GMA.”
When contacted about the purchases, Cunningham declined to answer questions. She resigned her commission post in August of 2015 because she said she was taking a job in Pennsylvania.
“I’m no longer associated with the city and I’m out of the area,” Cunningham said, adding that it wasn’t a convenient time to answer questions. She asked for the questions to be emailed to her. Decaturish sent her an email with the questions and the records regarding her purchases. She did not reply.
City Commission credit card expenses are approved by Merriss, the city manager. She said she had not considered Drake’s interest in Decatur Pure when approving that expenditure.
“Quite honestly, Commissioner Drake’s ownership in that didn’t even register,” she said.
She also did not have any more information about Cunningham’s expenses. Merriss and Mayor Garrett both said that while they couldn’t speak to each specific charge, Cunningham was heavily involved in GMA and meeting with members of the state Legislature last year.
Former mayor Jim Baskett spent over $1,000 in 2015, more than any other commissioner. The majority of that, $783, was spent at the GMA’s Annual Meeting in Savannah.
Baskett said he cut his card up every year before becoming the mayor. When asked why he did that, he said, “I didn’t want to have to answer these kinds of questions to anybody. I never saw my public service as anything more than public service.”
A stack of cards
Other cities interviewed for this story reported issuing credit cards at a rate far lower than Decatur’s.
While those cities are comparable to Decatur in population, Merriss said each city is different has different reasons for issuing or not issuing cards. She said the credit cards are one of a few different ways the city makes purchases. Each have their tradeoffs.
She said other methods of purchasing items, like checks, have their drawbacks. Checks can get stolen or lost, she said. Credit cards make many necessary transactions easier, she said.
“We prefer to have the most minimal things we can do for our folks and these types of purchases make sense,” Merriss said. “The people who get [the cards] have a reason to have them. … When you have it, it’s a convenient, most-efficient way and least-expensive way to purchase those goods or buy that service.”
While Decatur has issued 52 cards, the city of Griffin has issued six. Sugar Hill has issued no more than eight cards. Snellville has two cards. Sanders, the city manager of Snellville, said, “I’ve done this for 35 years and we’ve never had individual [credit cards] in any instance in my tenure with local government. Everybody has a different take on it.”
Utz, who has served as the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the City of Atlanta, said the number of cards isn’t as important as the strength of the controls surrounding them.
“More cards means more work to control, but there is no doubt we are moving toward a more cash-free environment, and cards do simplify and speed many of the smaller transactions required of a service-focused government,” he said.
A process under review
Accidents happen, and there were instances where city employees said they’d inadvertently used the city card for a personal purchase. It happened to Merriss when she used the card to pay for a birthday meal. It happened to Active Living Director Greg White who made a mistake by spending $11 on his city issued card at Kroger. It happened to Assistant Active Living Director Cheryl Burnette, who spent $50 on something called “Sq Holistic Skin T.”
Those charges and others like them have been reimbursed, Merriss said.
“In none of the cases … was an employee disciplined for recognizing that they had made an error and providing a reimbursement to the City,” Merriss said. She said the city did not fire or reprimand anyone for their credit card use in 2015.
In some cases, the credit card holders were the victim of theft. Shirley Baylis, the city’s Special Events and Community Outreach Coordinator, had her card information stolen. It was used to make fraudulent charges in London, England. About $1,800 in refunds for fraudulent charges were credited back to Decatur’s account in 2015.
“Ms. Baylis reported the fraud charges to the credit card issuer who believed her and did not require a police report,” Merriss said. “On the date of the charges, Ms. Baylis was here working for the City of Decatur and not in London. Her card was used fraudulently by someone who got the number through illicit means.”
When the city first provided the records of the credit card transactions, about $4,800 of them had no justification. After receiving inquiries from Decaturish, Merriss went through those line by line and found receipts for all but about $600 of them.
And if the city can’t find receipts, will those expenses be reimbursed?
“We will do what we’ve got to do,” Merriss said.
The city is already looking to make improvements to its process in response to questions about the purchases.
“We’ll look at doing a much better actual description of what constitutes a business-related expense for meals,” Merriss said.
The city is retraining its staff on how to properly record expenses in response to our inquiry. It is also looking at ways to rotate the people who approve the credit card expenses to keep a fresh set of eyes on them each month. The city is considering creating a list of businesses that will not be approved for city credit card charges.
“So we’re learning,” Merriss said. “Again, I don’t think anything in what I have seen leads me to believe that anyone has done anything nefarious or attempted to act not in the best interest of the city, but it is our responsibility to make sure we demonstrate that in how we make our decisions.”
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Clarification: One of the titles of the employees mentioned in this story is different than the one listed on the city’s website. This story has been updated with the employee’s current title.