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Sonoma County auditors to target employee credit card use

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors next week is set to authorize an internal audit and tighter oversight of employee credit card use, a move prompted in part by recent public records requests by The Press Democrat.

The plan includes a call for improved “internal controls” on who gets county-issued credit cards and how they are used.

It also spells out existing and new checks to detect when the use is improper, and when they are detected, steps to make sure taxpayers are reimbursed.

The plan comes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, five days after county officials responded to a Press Democrat public information request by turning over records for 344 cardholders and 20,000 county credit card transactions in the past two years.

They show a total of nearly $4.4 million on charges for services and supplies, travel, lodging, meals and other goods, all ostensibly for the purpose of county business.

(Search Search Sonoma County employee credit card charges here.)

The spending, which in 2011 and 2012 represented 0.3 percent of the county’s annual $1.2 billion budget, nevertheless has come under scrutiny amid heightened tension over cuts to county services. Divisions over pay and benefits between rank-and-file employees — few of whom have county cards — and elected officials and managers have also fueled interest in the credit receipts.

The bills range from $2,500 for government retreats, public meetings and mapping software to office supply and parking purchases of less than a dollar.

Spending among individuals topped out at $182,700, the amount charged by a county Water Agency engineer responsible for information technology purchases for his office.

County department heads and managers in Human Services, the pension system, the Water Agency and the airport occupied other slots among the top 30 spenders, all of whom spent at least $35,000. Many of the top 10 held jobs that involved purchasing responsibilities.

County supervisors, who often take the most heat for their out-of-county junkets, were further down the list. Three members at the time — Valerie Brown, Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo — exceeded the $12,000 average for all cardholders. Supervisors David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire came in closer to the median of $5,300.

Sixty percent of the total spending was for services and supplies, 12 percent for lodging, 11 percent for professional memberships and conference dues, 7 percent for airfare, and 4 percent for food. The remaining 6 percent came from charges for fuel, car and equipment rental, parking and transportation and other services.

County officials say the credit program, in place since 2000 and open mostly to managers, elected officials and some field workers, saves more than $250,000 annually in reduced paperwork and processing for smaller transactions.

In compiling the records, county administrative officials said they found only “a couple” cases where employees had used their county cards for personal purchases. They said the charges were later reimbursed. An exact number of individuals involved or the amount or type of their purchases was unavailable Friday and could not be identified by The Press Democrat in its initial analysis.

In other cases, employees used the cards for services and supplies that are supposed to be bought through standard purchase orders, such as computer equipment, administrative officials said.

They said the plan going before supervisors would seek to clarify those policies and expand training for employees to make sure rules are followed.

But county administrators balked at a suggestion that the audit proposal signaled some larger problems exist.

“That’s just good government. You should always make sure you’re crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,” said Jim Leddy, a county spokesman. He said that the review would be “rigorous.”

“We have strong controls in place and this next process is going to strengthen them if necessary down to that detailed level,” Leddy said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who was second behind Brown in spending by board members, said she looked at the county report and saw a need for tighter controls.

Currently, 304 employees are signed up for the Visa accounts, which are issued through the statewide Cal Card program. The cards are handed out at the discretion of department heads and Zane said that process needs stronger oversight.

“There’s no real policy in terms of who the department heads give the cards to,” Zane said. “We need to tighten it up.”

Zane used her county card for $14,400 in travel, lodging and meals over the period.

She, like other top officials interviewed Friday, defended her charges. She said she pays out of pocket for most meals and ground transportation on lobbying trips and government gatherings in Washington D.C. She and other supervisors insist the trips are needed to bring home funding and advance county interests.

“Whenever you have someone that steps up and takes a national leadership role, there are going to be expenses,” Zane said.

Brown, who retired at the end of 2012, said more than half of her $16,330 charges for the period were reimbursed by the California State Association of Counties to cover her role as a board member in a similar national body.

County officials confirmed the reimbursements, which are not reflected in the latest batch of records disclosed to The Press Democrat this week.

Brown’s international trips, which drew criticism in her final two years in office, were not paid for by the county, she said.

“I was not a big card user in my 10 years (in office),” she said.

The number of cardholders has been consistent in recent years at about 300. Annual spending has ranged from a recent low of $1.1 million in the fiscal year 2007-2008 to a high of about $2.1 million in 2011-2012.

County administrative officials said they did not have Cal Card information on how Sonoma County compares to other counties.

The most prolific use of cards occurs at the county Water Agency, which accounted for $1.9 million of the two-year spending total. It had 23 of the top 30 card users by total expenditures and the most overall cardholders in the records, at 53.

Brad Sherwood, an agency spokesman, said the credit cards streamline purchases for employees who need quick access to supplies for capital projects and services for other agency duties.

He noted that the charges accumulated by agency employees in two years amounted to 0.5 percent of the agency’s annual budget of $214 million.

“We have a lot of moving parts around here,” Sherwood said. “We’ve found (the cards) useful.”

County employees who don’t have government-issued credit cards file paper claims to be reimbursed for job-related purchases. Cardholders can do the same on purchases when they don’t use their cards. Reimbursements typically amount to far less than credit spending, officials said.

The Press Democrat also has received two years of those reimbursement claims, stretching from late 2010 to late 2012.

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors discussion on Cal Cards is set for the consent agenda, where deliberation is typically limited and staff presentation minimal.

Chairman David Rabbitt suggested the item could be pulled onto the regular agenda if supervisors or public feedback suggest it should be.

Rabbitt said he welcomed the focus on Cal Card accounts, but said the county should be careful in its overhaul not to micromanage the credit program.

“I’m all for that discussion,” he said. “It’s good to be airing some dirty laundry.”

SONOMA COUNTY CREDIT CARD EXPENSES

Total 2011-2012 spending: $4,375,081, by 344 card holders, including elected officials, department heads, managers and field staff:

SPENDING BY CATEGORY

Supplies: $1,740,476 (40%)
Services: $872,478 (20%)
Lodging: $517,595 (12%)
Registration, membership: $457,782 (11%)
Airfare: $310,740 (7%)
Food: $177,455 (4%)
Fuel, car/equipment rentals, parking/transportation and other purchases: $239,057 (6%)

BOARD OF SUPERVISORS 2011-2012 SPENDING*
Valerie Brown: $16,330
Shirlee Zane: $14,427
Efren Carrillo: $13,508
David Rabbitt: $8,637
Mike McGuire: $5,300
*Totals do not reflect reimbursements by government associations.
Source: County of Sonoma

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.





20 Responses to “Sonoma County auditors to target employee credit card use”

  1. SantaRosaCitizen says:

    Two points:
    1) Using the credit card is a convenience. Just looking at credit card expenditures doesn’t tell you anything. Most expenses for travel, food, lodging, are paid by the employee, and then reimbursed. You need to look at the big picture.

    2) The manager to line staff ratio is completely misunderstood. Most of those who are in “management” classifications are professional staff, and do not “manage” any staff. And when services are outsourced (to save the taxpayer money) you still need someone who is going to manage the program.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Bear-that’s why my word “micromanage” was in quotes. I can tell you that I have personally heard BOS members using this word and saying they have to trust their managers. That’s what they tell the unions, and also tell unions dthey don’t negotiate for managers so no mentioning the inequities. Unions have been screaming about about the real leaches on the taxpayers AND THE PENSION ISSUES THAT WORKERS ARE BEING BLAMED FOR. Workers don’t retire at more than what they made while working (well maybe the safety unions). Most of those working, like the road crew, that get occasional overtime make less than $24 per hour. No way are they leaching off the public.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  3. Back Room Dealers says:

    Bear,
    Right On. Open meeting laws to this Board mean they allow three minutes of discussion in public. All of the deals are done in the back room. Have you been to recent hearings on the budget? What used to be a serious discussion and sometimes even debate over several days is now a race to the door so the Board can take their summer vacations. All the horses are traded out of the public eye.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  4. bear says:

    @mockingbird

    You got one thing wrong: the BOS DOES “micromanage.” Think about it.

    Mangers are non-union and serve solely at the “pleasure” of the BOS. If a manager does anything the BOS doesn’t like, he/she are instantly gone.

    So ANY staff report or recommendation from anywhere are edited by management only after consultation with some or all of the BOS. It’s called “walking the halls.”

    “Open meeting” laws are a hideous joke. MANAGERS meet individually with the BOS, and edit all departmental recommendations based on the direction of the perceived BOS majority. Including major financial decisions affecting the public, current staff and retirees.

    Critics, I can appreciate your opinions, and I’ve written about this before. Can you understand that this applies to ALL levels of government? NOT just the County.

    Please see the real problem and fix it.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  5. Need More Managers says:

    Six managers per employee and we need an audit? WOW

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  6. Kirstin says:

    Kudos to Mike McGuire for keeping his spending to much more controlled levels than other supervisors. David Rabbitt gets an honorable mention. The rest had better start reducing their use of the public dime in a hurry. Sup. Goren had best NOT follow in former Sup. Brown’s footsteps.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1

  7. Nora Gonzales says:

    If the county wants to seriously cut costs, begin at the top. End the credit card for the supervisors.

    If supervisor needs to travel on county business, let them pay for it out of their pocket and request reimbursement when the trip is completed.

    I would bet you would see some cuts in expenditures and supervisors would be staying home to take care of county business. Why do they need to travel to Washington, South America, or Europe to attend conferences anyway? Why do we have Congressmen and Senators and a State Department?

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 1

  8. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    SEIU has been screaming about management abuses for YEARS and yet the public attacks the unions. Managers are not union. The BOS does not “micromanage” so all the power and control is given to the management. The BOS approves everything the managers bring to them including more and more new management positions. The rank and file to managers is >6:1 (less than 6 to 1). Oregon and Texas now have passed laws requiring a more reasonable rank and file to manager ratio of 11:1. California’s people should pass an initiative to make it happen if they are worried about how their tax money is used. Every time new management positions are added it is paid for at the cost of the rank and file AND SERVICES TO THE PUBLIC. Demand better services and fewer managers. Managers are the one who drive up the pension costs with the pensionable perks and some retire making more than they made while working.

    I will repeat, management protects themselves and their perks and the cost comes from the rank and file who provide SERVICES TO THE PUBLIC. The rank and file are there in the case of emergency, they are there in the case of a disaster, they are the meeters and greeters of the public when you need services. Fewer rank and file means fewer services to the public and the quality goes down. Want a permit? Ask the permit department how many managers they have, how many rank and file they used to have, and how many managers they now have? (Many rank and file were laid off in 2008 but not managers). Some departments have a low ratio 1 manager to 2 employees (1:2). The best department is Family Support which halved their managers and increased their rank and file which showed a significant increase of revenue.

    Demand from the BOS more quality services. Demand a more reasonable rank and file to manager ratio. The unions can yell and scream MURDER, but without PUBLIC SUPPORT, nothing will ever change

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  9. Phil Maher says:

    Why such a glaring discrepancy between Brown/Zane and Rabbitt/McGuire? That’s the first place the auditors should be looking.

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 0

  10. John says:

    Efren Carillo spent $13,508 on our county credit card. Was any of that on his “vacation” in SoCal where he had his little incident? We just have to match the dates on the receipts.

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 4

  11. The Hammer says:

    Any county employee who used their card for personal use should be fired, period. That’s stealing from me and I want them gone!

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 4

  12. Sonoma Gone Crazy says:

    Sonoma County is going to do an “Internal Audit”? When did that ever uncover anything in this corrupt County? How about the the Federal Government finally coming in and actually auditing this “so-called” Government Agency?

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 3

  13. andrew simpson says:

    Dear Brett:

    That the PD would invest reportorial time and printer’s ink on prospective credit card abuse by County officials would be entertaining if it weren’t so painful. You and your editors wave the banner of investigative reporting at trivia while studiously ignoring substance. The County of Sonoma is well managed at the middle staff and employee level while fraudulently governed by the Supervisors and agency heads. The County of Sonoma’s employees–heavily constituted of SEIU members–are in the main diligent, professional and productive. And nice! They’re not ripping off the public. They watch their bosses play havoc with County cash–payoffs via fake contracts, bogus capital programs like Sonoma County Energy Independence and Sonoma Clean Power–and worry about their own futures in a County steeped in a culture of white collar fraud at the senior decision level. THe Press Democrat’s complicity in this theatre of “see no evil” is breathtaking. If there were an un-Pulitzer Prize for deception in newspapering, the Press Democrat would win national acclaim. Instead of inventing “angels on a head of a pin” baloney investigations, try answering the question, “who do the Board of Supervisors, County Counsel, the Auditor Controller and the senior management of the Water Agency view as their real constituents–the people on whose good will their careers and livelihood depend?” If you can honestly answer that question, you may find the opportunities for investigative reporting in Sonoma COunty are an unbouded field of opportunity.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 12

  14. Still Waters says:

    Since only the Top Dogs get the majority of these free lines of credit, they are the ones who will be exposed if they have been abusing the system. But we may never hear who the real culprits are since they are quick to close ranks to protect their benefits while taking away those of the workers.

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  15. Reece says:

    The county auditors should audit the Fair expenses and the cigar & scotch lunches for county officials and their guests during the two weeks of the fair.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 4

  16. Caller says:

    There’s no scandal hear. This is way too long of an article just to say the county uses credit cards for a lot of payments. Government whino-o’s will complain anyway though, without even looking at the charges.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 21

  17. Brett's My Hero says:

    Go Brett!! Pull pack those curtains and let some sun shine on Sonoma County Government. Great Job!!

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 5

  18. Follower says:

    “But we don’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem.”

    And you suckers keep voting to give them more & more money to piss away.

    In grammar school when they taught us the story of Alice in Wonderland they never warned us that we would be living there someday!

    Oh well… at least they DID warn us that pollution was causing the next “Ice Age”.

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  19. Steveguy says:

    Looks like the Auditors need auditing too.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 2

  20. BigDogatPlay says:

    I’m sorry but shouldn’t county auditors have been watching employee credit card use as a part of the function of their jobs already?

    What have they been auditing, if not the single biggest potential for fraud, waste and abuse on the chart of accounts?

    Thumb up 44 Thumb down 4

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