HOMEWOOD, Ala. (WBMA) — After questions about Homewood’s high number of city credit cards, there’s a move to reel in those numbers and spending.
Earlier this month, the ABC 3340 News I-Team first reported on 35 employees having city issued credit cards. We have spent the past few weeks digging deeper into how spending topped $860,000 over the past twelve months.
“This is not a piggy bank,” remarked Council Member Barry Smith at a Finance Committee meeting earlier this month. “It’s just out of control,” she said in making a case to reduce the number of credit cards to department heads and to increase accountability.
ABC 3340 News filed a public records request for city credit card statements over the past year.
Our review found total purchases: $867,960. In one month $112,541 was spent.
CREDIT CARD STATEMENT PURCHASES BY MONTH/YEAR:
Oct 2022 $75,888
Nov 2022 $53,918
Dec 2022 $68,446
Jan 2023 $74,669
Feb 2023 $67,336
March 2023 $66,251
April 2023 $112,541
May 2023 $82,036
June 2023 $58,146
July 2023 $72,025
Aug 2023 $77,684
Sept 2023 $59,020
The city’s credit card limit is $500,000.
The credit cards are not limited to senior level managment such as department heads. Among those with a credit card: aquatics director, administrative assistant, police lieutenant, and senior center director.
In all thirty five employees have credit cards.
“Over time and for convenience reasons lots more people got credit cards,” explained Smith who compiled a list of recommendations for a new city policy that was approved Monday by the finance committee. The full council is expected to vote on the policy next month.
The city’s current credit card policy is an executive order from 2010. Among the provisions: purchases must be pre-authorized, credit cards are for travel and emergency expenditures only, and they are not intended for purchases that can me made through normal government procedures such as getting a purchase order.
Some of the statements released to ABC 3340 News show hundreds of charges for meals all over Homewood, Bessemer, and Birmingham. Some were in the range of $100 to $200.
And as noted in the finance committee meeting itemized receipts were not always supplied. Itemized receipts are standard for government meal charges and reimbursements. It is to make sure things like liquor, which is not allowed, is not paid for by government funds.
A small sample of some of the meal charges on the statements include: $117, $80, $109, $256, $268, $135, $172. All of those are above the daily reimbursement rate for a meal allowed by the city of Homewood. From the records supplied, we are unable to tell if these were emergency expenses or how many people were covered by the charge.
Standard practices for many governments and businesses is to have an employee pay for their meal then be reimbursed once the expense is approved if it is job related. Food expenses are traditionally allowed for training sessions and travel.
Credit card statements also show hundreds of Amazon purchases, multiple Disney Plus charges in a single month, Sirius XM and Youtube charges.
Many large purchases were made at a grocery store outside of Homewood along with a Chik-fil-A in another nearby city. It’s not known why those purchases were not made within the city of Homewood.
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We have sent those questions and more to the city’s finance director. By newstime we had not received a response to our information request.
ABC 3340 News also requested an interview with Mayor Patrick McClusky about the city’s spending practices. We did not get a return call.
In a phone interview, Council President Alex Wyatt said the city is trying to get to the point where leaders are able to keep track of charges and where card holders understand how to use the cards in compliance with government rules.
All charges are reviewed by a finance committee member each month. The finance committee approves them, then the full council. Smith told ABC 3340 News they had not found any fraudulent spending.
But with thousands of charges each month, it’s questionable how closely those charges are reviewed.
ABC 3340 News asked Rachel Riddle, Chief Examiner for the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, who should have access to government credit cards? She said it is best to err on the side of caution with upper management having that authority rather than using the credit cards as a convenience.
She advised reviewing policies often to keep up with the changing financial landscape. Her office is seeing a lot of Amazon purchases on credit cards. Everything must be documented. Paypal and Venmo are popular payment methods. Governments need to have clear policies for those platforms.
“It is a always a good idea to update your policies. We are in a different world right now. At least every few years look at your policy,” says Riddle.
The state does not routinely audit cities like it does county governments, but if issues are raised examiners have the authority to launch a review.
We checked in with other local governments about their credit card use:
The city of Birmingham does not use credit cards according to a spokesperson.
The city of Vestavia Hills has eleven credit cards mostly for departmental use, not individuals.
Anniston has 31 credit cards.
Jefferson County has 21 credit cards which are limited to department heads or their designee. The average credit limit is around $5,000 according to a spokesperson.