The state of Georgia’s purchasing card program, operated by the Department of Administrative Services, allows state government agencies the use of credit cards for business expenses relative to their jobs.
But in the last several months, the program’s policies have been called into question with purchases that appeared to be less than job related.
In 2007, cards were used for an estimated $13 million in travel expenses, $6 million at Amazon.com, $9.3 million at restaurants/caterers and more than $50,000 on gift cards, among others, according to figures from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While Bryan County doesn’t use p-cards, they do have access to something along the same lines – county credit cards.
"The only time we do use a card is occasionally for travel expenses," said County Administrator Phil Jones. "Hotel and motel reservations are generally preplanned by an event organizer, generally offered at a reduced rate…We don’t rent many vehicles for transportation; more often than not we pay mileage for the use of their personal vehicle. We never travel first class on any mode of transportation. Seldom, if ever, do we use air travel unless it is a short-fused event that must be attended."
According to DOAS Commissioner Brad Douglas, the state p-card program’s oversight doesn’t extend to local levels. But he did say any municipality is welcome to ‘piggyback’ on the p-card contract.
"The way it works here, a county employee can request a card for travel and must bring receipts and file travel vouchers in order to receive payment, Jones explained. According to Bryan County’s Policy Number 9, county employees can use the cards while attending official government meetings, trips, or conferences for things like food and lodging, a rental car, airfare, tips, fuel, mileage on privately owned vehicles, laundry and registration fees.
As for how the bills get paid, each county department has its own line item budget. "When an employee fills out the travel voucher, it is compared to the credit card bill and the funds are deducted from the appropriate budget and line item," Jones said, noting that the bills are paid in full each month.
The Bryan County school district doesn’t use plastic, but does have procedures in place for expenditure requests.
"We do everything by purchase orders," Superintendent Dr. Sallie Brewer said. "At the school level, permission to purchase must first be approved by a principal. From there, the approval comes to our office and is processed here. The district makes sure the budget has enough money for the order and then it’s approved."
Brewer said the district has its overall budget, which each school’s budget is based on, and they will not approve any orders that don’t work with the budget’s numbers.
According to Richmond Hill’s Financial Director Bob Whitmarsh, the city’s department heads have control of the cards, like at city hall or planning and zoning. The credit card budget is a maximum of $2,500.
"There’s an expense form they have to complete for travel and they bring all their receipts in order to get the reimbursement," Whitmarsh said. "If they were to be given an upfront cash advance, they would have to submit all their receipts to see if they should be given more money, or if they owe us money. We encourage use of a city vehicle for transportation, but we reimburse them on miles if they use their personal vehicle."
Whitmarsh said each city vehicle has a gas fleet card, which is good at various service stations throughout the southeast.
"I think we have a good handle on all the situations," he said. "Our accounts payable clerk is responsible for matching up all expenditures to make sure the charges are all related. The department heads must approve their employees and then the accounts payable clerk is a separate set of eyes checking up on all of that."
Pembroke City Clerk Betty Hill said things on the north end of the county run in much the same way.
"Every elected city official has a credit card and they have so much expenditure per meal or per diem and usually they’ll pick up the cards when they go to training and then return them when they get back," Hill said. "I keep my card on my person for the city, and to use it I would call in for a purchase order and return the receipt for credit. All purchases have to be made within the budget."
Douglas said when looking at expenditures on the state level, it’s important to try and see the big picture.
"The State of Georgia is a gigantic enterprise with an operating budget of more than $20 billion," Douglas said. "If you understand the large scope of the state enterprise, some of the p-card figures pale in comparison."
Douglas said abuse of p-cards, credit cards or purchasing orders can happen anywhere and on any level.
"A county or city is obviously a smaller scale, but if they’re not diligent and on top of it – if you have one person who’s being lax – it can happen," he said, adding that as long as a system of checks and balances is in place, it can help alleviate discrepancies. "I don’t view this is an issue around the purchasing card. This is a people managing issue for all agencies."
In Georgia, the p-card program makes up about $350 million in yearly purchases, or about 10 percent of the state’s $3.5 billion annual operational spending.
"Once a p-card is utilized by a state employee, the accounting department within a given agency or university then chooses which account to apply the expense to," Douglas said, similar to how Bryan County’s municipalities allot their credit card expenses. "Thus a p-card purchase could be split among multiple account codes, which could include accounts funded by state appropriations, federal funds, grants, etc."
The purpose of the program, created in 1997, was for a faster, more cost-effective method for government purchasing and payment. P-cards were designed to reduce administrative burdens, paperwork and processing time.
Douglas said the state’s travel policy encourages all hotel stays to be booked within reason. If the DOAS sees anything that seems amiss in expenditures, they question the issue – if it comes to their attention.
"There are over 125,000 state employees, so it is impossible to manage the expense reporting at a centralized point, say within DOAS. Each approving supervisor or manager must assume that responsibility," Douglas said. "It’s ultimately up to management within each state agency or university to ensure employees are not abusing the policy."
Douglas said the majority of purchases they’ve investigated have been legitimate.
"Many of the purchases from websites such as Amazon.com may result from the purchase of reference books for business purposes. However, much of the gift-card expenditures are related to those individuals for whom criminal charges are now pending, as gift cards are strictly forbidden purchases under the state’s existing p-card policy," he said, noting expenditures made in policy violation haven’t been taken lightly. "We are moving aggressively. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has being looking into a number of universities and many cases have been closed with some criminal proceedings."
In the last year, the DOAS has reengineered the organization and hired new professionals whose sole responsibility is to ensure agencies are following the codes, policies and procedures for the use of p-cards.
"Those professionals are focused specifically on p-card purchases and they started their work this past summer, performing audits…As a result of that, there was a 23 percent decrease of p-cards in the month of December, just over 1,100 p-cards were deactivated and an untold number of card limits were lowered," Douglas said. "That points to the effectiveness of what we’re doing. There needed to be new infrastructure and its here."
Here’s a look at transactions of some of our county and city officials:The Bryan County Board of Commissioners MasterCard bill, which includes charges on different cards:
11/14 Johnny Carinos, Athens 78.59
11/14 Red Rooster, Athens 9.89
11/15 Chili’s, Athens 80.17
11/15 Red Rooster, Athens 7.89
11/16 USPS, Richmond Hill 26.85
11/16 Wendy’s, Dublin 6.18
11/16 Amoco Oil, Dublin 40.07
11/16 Courtyard by Marriot, Athens – five day stay 442.01
11/16 Courtyard by Marriot, Athens – five day stay 400.00
11/16 Courtyard by Marriot, Athens 15.79
11/16 UGA Parking Services, Athens 8.00
11/20 Gearxs.com 49.53
11/20 Subway, Pembroke 29.95
11/21 Alco, Pembroke 89.61
11/26 Harvey’s, Pembroke 9.88
11/26 Subway, Pembroke 56.00
11/29 El Vaquero, Columbus 11.24
11/29 Amoco Oil, Columbus 29.01
12/01 Holiday Inn Express, Columbus – one day stay 84.00
12/02 Clyde’s Market, Pembroke 50.00
12/03 Ruby Tuesday, Darien 69.00
12/03 Amoco Oil, Darien 36.00
12/03 Zaxby’s, Macon 10.36
12/03 Chik-fil-a, Macon 4.29
12/04 WM Supercenter, Savannah 100.00
12/04 Harvey’s, Pembroke 26.51
12/05 Zaxby’s, Savannah 16.44
12/11 Eaglebit.com 79.99
12/12 DS Waters, Mableton 200.42
12/12 GSCCA 800-3045174 GA 21.70
12/12 Dairy Queen, Athens 10.13
12/14 Exxon Mobil, Athens 37.00
12/15 Holiday Inns, Athens – two day stay 162.00
12/17 Finance charge $50.55
Total charges = $2,832.56
On some of the less explanatory charges, such as the $79.99 charge at Eaglebit.com , the purchase was used for computer repairs and the Alco charge for $89.61 went toward operating supplies, according to the county’s invoice that was provided with a copy of the credit card payment check. Food adn lodging charges in Athens resulted from a conference attended by county officials.
Credit card charges from the City of Pembroke:
Note: City Clerk Betty Hill said the late fees have been disputed and the vendor, Bank of America, has agreed to refund the charges for any shown late fees.
10/24 Chili’s, McDonough 48.00
10/24 Cracker Barrel, Macon 37.55
10/26 Chili’s, Athens 28.89
10/29 Shell Oil, Athens 51.60
11/05 Applebees, Savannah 30.86
11/06 R&D’s Seafood Steaks, Sylvania 26.00
11/07 R&D’s Seafood Steaks, Sylvania 26.00
11/08 R&D’s Seafood Steaks, Sylvania 26.00
11/12 Cedars Restaurant, Dover 25.20
11/15 Texas Roadhouse, Columbia, SC 71.06
11/16 Amoco Oil, Cayce, SC 70.00
11/19 Late Payment Fee 39.00
11/23 Finance Charge 33.00
Total charges = $513.16
The majority of this bill is for gas and transportation. The Chili's in Athens transaction if associated with a Bryan County Family Connections Conference.
11/05 Pizza Hut, Statesboro 78.18
11/15 Alco, Pembroke 12.39
11/19 Late Payment Fee 39.00
11/23 Finance Charges 14.72
Total charges = $144.29, $12.39 for supplies
11/12 Institute Press-Online 174.75, for office supplies
11/16 Harvey’s, Pembroke 23.41
11/19 Harvey’s, Pembroke 6.78
11/19 Leggett’s Stop’n’Go, Pembroke 20.33
11/19 Late Payment Fee 29.00
11/23 Finance Charge 2.04
Total charges = $81.56 miscellaneous
11/06 USPS, Pembroke 44.00
11/19 Late Payment Fee 29.00
11/23 Finance Charge 2.22
Total charges = $75.22, $44 for the post office
11/09 Alco, Pembroke 134.95
11/19 Late Payment Fee 29.00
11/23 Finance Charge 3.69
Total charges = $167.64, with $134.95 going to recreation, which Hill explained were mirrors purchased for the new Community Center
From the City of Richmond Hill’s bill with Visa:
09/09 UGA OTR Restaurant, Athens 8.24
09/09 Cracker Barrel, Dublin 10.96
09/10 UGA OTR Restaurant, Athens 8.96
09/10 Harry Bissett’s New Orleans, Athens 33.90
09/11 The Olive Garden, Athens 20.00
09/12 UGA OTR Restaurant, Athens 7.22
09/12 UGA OTR Hotel, Athens 291.00
09/12 Cracker Barrel, Dublin 18.18
09/14 Humana-Tricare, KY 460.00
09/18 Newslibrary.com Article, VT 9.85
09/20 Mariott, Atlanta 30.24
09/20 Cracker Barrel, Dublin 11.47
09/21 Longhorn, Macon 41.02
09/22 Marriot, Atlanta 151.92
09/27 Royal Oak Carwash, Richmond Hill 29.95
09/27 Captain Joe’s Seafood, Midway 38.76
10/05 Annual Charge 10.00
Total charges = $1,180.40
"We pay a bill for several of our firefighters, for insurance premiums which we remit to Humana-Tricare. I think Vernon is one of them; they elected to do their insurance through that and we pay this electronically through a credit card," the city’s Finance Director Bob Whitmarsh said of the $460 charge.
The Royal Oak Carwash charge was for a city vehicle, which Whitmarsh said are occasionally washed if the vehicle needs more than an average cleaning.
"If we need an interior and exterior cleaning, say for if we’re leaving the county, we want the vehicle and the vehicle’s decals to be clean. We use local merchants whenever possible to give them the business," he said.