Kane Co. credit card reform goes beyond coroner
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell’s use of a county credit card to pay bills that were under further review sparked a county board outcry for more intense scrutiny of credit card use throughout the county. A Daily Herald review of county credit card usage in 2015 shows the coroner’s office may not be the prime target if reform is the true goal.
County employees logged nearly $638,000 in charges from Dec. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2015. Bills for November 2015, the final month of the county’s fiscal year, had not been processed at the time of this reporting. In those 11 months, employees in the county’s 24 departments swiped their cards more than 2,700 times.
Employees in the information technology department racked up twice as many charges as any other office. Many of those charges are difficult to detail.
Most of IT purchases made with county credit cards were made through Amazon.com. Department head Roger Fahnestock explained his employees simply find much better deals shopping online for computer equipment than in local stores.
The man in charge of examining the charges is Auditor Terry Hunt. County policy says there are only three types of credit card expenses explicitly prohibited: alcohol, tobacco and personal items.
That last category gets to be a little murky.
“When it comes for my review, it has to be for a public purpose,” Hunt said. “To that extent, because the electeds have that internal control ability, if they say it’s for a public purpose, I don’t have an option to say I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Russell has long maintained all the credit card purchases he made were for public purposes.
County board Chairman Chris Lauzen specifically chastised the charges because some of them included what he deemed personal promotional items. And all the charges were made while Russell’s office was over budget.
The county board has steered away from examining the promotional nature of the charges. In part, that may be because Russell cut a personal check for $5,771.73 to reimburse the county for those expenses.
It may also be because Russell wouldn’t be the only elected official they’d have to call onto the carpet. Hunt said the county’s public health department and sheriff’s office both have long histories of buying promotional items having to do with health promotion and crime prevention.
But even an office like Treasurer David Rickert’s has what Hunt deemed to be promotional pens because customers who come into the treasurer’s office use them to write checks.
In any other year, Russell’s promotional item purchases would almost certainly have gone unnoticed and approved, Hunt said. At least a couple of factors paved the way for more intense scrutiny.
First, the county board approved a resolution this year that said any county office is deemed to be over budget not just when it has spent more money than it was allowed. The resolution said an office is deemed over budget if and when it is projected to spend more money than allowed at any point in the budget year.
Once an office is projected to be over budget, Hunt has the authority to withhold the payment of bills for further review of what is and isn’t a mandated expense.
Russell, thanks to the shifting of some funds, actually ended 2015 with a small budget surplus. So what if he’d shifted that cash earlier and never been forecast to be over budget?
“The credit card charges would have gone through just like the other tens of thousands of charges every month,” Hunt said. “If he had been within his budget, it would have gone through for a normal payment. It wouldn’t have been flagged.”
Russell said it’s clear from those facts that attention on his credit card use was all to give him a political black eye with voters.
He said his credit card usage was “minimal compared to other departments, even those under the chairman’s direct authority.”
That’s a reference to the IT department, public health department and division of transportation — three of the five heaviest users of county credit cards.
Hunt said he’s put in place more stringent standards for making sure credit card purchases are legitimate.
For example, county rules reimburse employees for meals up to $59 a day. But that reimbursement is allowed only if the meals are part of business travel more than 50 miles from the government center.
If an employee is attending a conference that includes the price of meals in the registration, the employee can’t use a credit card to purchase meals while at that conference.
Hunt said he requires conference agendas and registration details to document what’s involved in any county travel. Meals purchased on travel days to and from conferences are not eligible for reimbursement, Hunt said.
Even with those standards in place, the numbers appear to show some charges slip through the cracks.
Employees logged more than $34,130 in purchases at restaurants or grocery stores in 2015. Several of the fast food locations with identifying store numbers are within the 50-mile cutoff for the use of food purchases related to travel. County employees logged nearly $165,000 in travel expenses on county credit cards in 2015.
All of those issues are possible topics for county board members to explore in 2016. Members of the finance committee have called for an overall reduction in the number of cards in circulation and a decrease in spending limits.