CINCINNATI - The use of city-issued credit cards at City Hall is coming under increasing scrutiny as Cincinnati continues to consider laying off police and firefighters and cutting city services to avoid a $35 million deficit.
Each month, the city racks up about $171,000 on credit card-related expenses. Since 2008, the city spent $5.9 million in credit card expenses.
Cumulatively, the city-issued cards have a credit limit totaling $2.1 million.
And at least one city council member is calling for an immediate halt in the spending. Others are questioning the city’s oversight and record keeping on the accounts.
The review of credit card spending came just days after WCPO Digital requested a detailed accounting of the credit card spending.
“It is shameful that the city administration is spending $171,000 a month, which would equal about $2 million a year, on this spending while we’re talking about laying off 911 operators, police and firefighters,” said Council member Charlie Winburn.
In all, 145 people at City Hall have government-issued credit cards including Mayor Mark Mallory, who has a monthly credit limit of $50,000. City Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan, also has a card with a monthly limit of $7,000.
No other council member has city-issued credit cards, according to records.
The cards — technically known as procurement cards, or p-cards for short — are generally used for expenses under $3,000. Most corporations and company executives have similar cards for work and travel related expenses.
Last year, Mallory spent a $160,184 on his city-issued card. Through mid-May of this year, records show he has spent $66,669.
Although there are guidelines about how city workers may use the cards and what types of purchases are acceptable, Mallory decides how to use his card and no outside entity is required to sign off for approval.
“When the mayor wants to use the account, he decides if it is appropriate,” said his spokesman Jason Barron. “The citizens elected him and he makes the decision how best to be mayor.”
Dohoney: Cards Help Efficiency
In addition to credit cards, the city also uses “ghost cards,” which essentially are a line of credit used for online purchases. No actual card is issued to the user. Instead, the user is given data to enter onto online forms, which can then be charged to the city.
Records show 29 city employees use ghost cards.
City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. defended the use of the cards in a memo to City Council just after WCPO Digital requested the records and review of credit card spending.
Dohoney said the cards expedite departmental purchases and allow quicker payments to vendors, allow for online purchases of business items “that may not be available otherwise,” and is more efficient for handling travel arrangements.
“The P-cards are defined as corporate-level cards distributed to employees with restrictions imposed by the city,” Dohoney wrote. “Card holders have a monthly spending limit, and the types of purchases are pre-established.
“Departments must request a card for appropriate personnel and those persons must successfully complete training and complete the appropriate forms before the card is issued,” the memo added.
Next page: Calls for oversight, Mallory's records in-depth
Some City Council members said more information is needed from administrators about how the cards are monitored.
“Using credit cards do not represent an inherently bad practice,” said Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. “There’s some merit to the argument that they improve efficiency.”
Still, Sittenfeld wants improvements to their record-keeping.
“There needs to be maximum oversight and, frankly, they need to be in as few hands as possible,” he said. “Having 145 seems excessive.”
Councilman Christopher Smitherman agreed.
“The controls are not in place,” Smitherman said. “It’s ripe for workers to game the system.
“Some of the statements are hard to make out,” he added. “And how is the city able to review purchases and decide if an expense is appropriate after it’s already been bought and charged?”
Last year, Sittenfeld introduced a motion to make all city spending under $3,000 be placed online so it can be easily accessed and searchable by the public. He was unable to get a council majority to agree, but intends to try again.
“That type of spending can add up significantly,” Sittenfeld said.
Closer Look at Mallory’s Card
For the mayor’s card, Mallory specifically requested the $50,000 line of credit, Barron said.
The higher amount was needed because part of the mayor’s duties include acting as the city’s representative and helping attract new business here, Barron added.
Expenses charged to Mallory’s card are paid using various city accounts. Most of the expenses are paid using the mayor’s office budget, but some expenses are paid using Economic Development accounts.
“There’s a built-in check on the spending because if the mayor ever spends too much and uses all of his budget, he wouldn’t be able to pay his employees or pay for items like office supplies,” Barron said. “Like anyone, he has to use the card responsibly or there are consequences.”
Monthly credit card statements for Mallory obtained through the public records request made by WCPO Digital on May 13 show that Mallory spends varying amounts each month, from as little as $313 to nearly $50,000 one month last year.
Expenses in January 2013 included $90.08 spent at Senate restaurant in Over-the-Rhine, $85.89 spent at Moerlein Lager House, and $50.60 spent at Taste of Belgium.
The meals were bought using the card, Barron said, because the Mayor was hosting people from a company he is trying to lure to Cincinnati to begin a bike-sharing program. Typically, meals aren’t charged to the card, he added.
“Sometimes he spends more money than other months,” Barron added. “The spending isn’t linear.”
You can read through the mayor's procurement card statements dating back to December 2011 below or at http://goo.gl/7MaF3.
A breakdown of Mallory’s credit card by month:
- $12,614 in January 2012
- $4,460 in February 2012
- $313 in March 2012
- $22,782 in April 2012
- $33,135 in May 2012
- $27,696 in July 2012
- $49,049 in August 2012
- $2,605 in September 2012
- $11,250 in October 2012
- $2,806 in November 2012
- $6,088 in December 2012
- $1,624 in January 2013
- $21,823 in February 2013
- $13,836 in March 2013
- $13,433 in April 2013
- $15,953 through mid-May 2013
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