Charlottesville officials charged at least $1.49 million to credit cards in 2019, with the bulk of the spending occurring in the second half of the year.
At least 100 of the charges would have required written permission from City Manager Tarron Richardson under a proposed, stricter credit card policy that would revise the spending limits for city employees. There’s no timetable on when Richardson’s policy will be approved and implemented.
Information on spending is based on credit card statements from July to December for city-issued credit cards obtained by The Daily Progress under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Some departments had cards without specific employee names through August. At that time, the credit card company, Suntrust, told the city that cards must be registered to specific employees.
Statements from July to December reflect $1.01 million charged across 30 departments. Over the summer, the city provided statements from 18 departments that totaled $480,721 in charges.
According to the statements provided by the city, there are 178 cards currently issued to employees, which comes out to an average spend of $163,833 per month and $920 per card each month over the second half of 2019. The Department of Social Services has the most cards with 46, followed by the Charlottesville Police Department with 28 and Parks and Recreation with 21.
Elected officials and their staff spent $145,249. That total includes sheriff, treasurer, City Council, commonwealth’s attorney, circuit court clerk and commissioner of the revenue.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker and former Councilors Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin had cards in 2019. Councilor Heather Hill had a card in 2018, but never used it and the account was closed that year.
Newly-seated Councilors Michael Payne, Lloyd Snook and Sena Magill have not been issued cards, said city Communications Director Brian Wheeler.
Signer and Galvin didn’t make any charges after July, but Galvin did book a few conferences through Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas.
Walker spent $7,468 in the second half of the year, mostly on meetings with constituents and city officials.
Bellamy spent $4,158, covering meals, conferences and transportation during those events. There’s a $150 charge in July for towing and a note on the statement says that Bellamy’s car was towed while he was conducting city business.
Commissioner of the Revenue Todd Divers’ card saw $15,958 in charges, mostly for office supplies and conferences for his staff. One of his largest charges was $1,310 for personalized stamped envelopes.
Sheriff James Brown spent $354.49, primarily to attend the Virginia Sheriff’s Institute annual meeting.
Rounding out the city’s elected officials was Circuit Court Clerk Llezelle Dugger, who spent $216.33, mostly on a hotel for the annual Virginia Circuit Court Clerks meeting.
In 2019, Walker led spending among councilors overall with $9,702. Bellamy charged $5,614 to his card while Galvin charged $15 and Signer spent $9.
The city has provided credit card statements for the entire time that Bellamy, Galvin and Walker had a card.
In their time on council, Bellamy spent $22,179, Walker has spent $17,201 and Galvin spent $2,595.
The city has provided Signer’s statements since June 2017, although he was issued a card in 2016 while serving as mayor. From June 2017 until his term ended, Signer charged $2,383.
Brown has spent $7,932 since January 2018.
Treasurer Jason Vandever doesn’t have a card in his name, but his office spent $13,289 on credit cards in the second half of 2019.
Thomas spent $13,685 in the second half of the year, including $4,362 for food at council meetings and $2,334 for cellphone bills for council-issued devices.
Interim Deputy City Manager Paul Oberdorfer spent $1,358 in the second half of the year. One of his charges was $458 for an airline ticket.
That ticket was for a meeting with Welty Building Co., an Ohio-based consulting firm, to discuss a proposed massive consolidation of city and school division administration that was proposed in October.
The city’s request for proposals to design the consolidation was canceled within two days of being posted. Oberdorfer’s trip was canceled. His hotel and rental car were canceled, but the airline ticket was nonrefundable.
Police Chief RaShall Brackney spent $3,744 in the second half of the year. Among the expenditures were a hotel while speaking in a series of lectures titled Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in America, which was sponsored by a Penn State University professor. She also stayed at a hotel in Dulles after her flight couldn’t land in Charlottesville following a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University on hate crimes in October.
Brackney also spent $45 on gas and a meal in September when she testified at the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing on assault weapons.
Brackney has charged $15,695 to her city-issued card since starting in June 2018.
Richardson spent $3,009, mainly to attend a conference in Tennessee.
The 2019 spending totals of other city officials who had a card in their name were Wheeler with $25,149; Economic Development Director Chris Engel with $15,034; Utilities Director Lauren Hildebrand with $12,765; Neighborhood Development Services Director Alex Ikefuna with $8,375; Finance Director Chris Cullinan with $7,519; former Registrar Rosanna Bencoach with $3,653; current Registrar Melissa Morton with $1,845; City Attorney John Blair with $1,691; Fire Chief Andrew Baxter with $1,402 and former Deputy City Manager Mike Murphy with $700.
Hildebrand, Cullinan and Blair didn’t have cards in their names until Suntrust made the city change its policy of departmental cards.
The existing policy sets a single-purchase limit of $5,000 for nearly every employee. There’s no limit on single purchases related to travel. The monthly limit for all cardholders is $20,000.
The draft policy, which is being reviewed by city staff, would set different limits for employees at different levels.
Management, including the city manager, deputy city manager, department directors and constitutional officers, would have a single-purchase limit of $2,000 and a monthly limit of $9,999.99.
Managers and supervisors would have a single-purchase limit of $1,500 and a monthly cap of $2,999.99.
All other employees would have a single-purchase and monthly limit of $1,000. Richardson has said that he plans to recommend that City Council add itself to the lowest tier.
In DeSoto, Richardson set the single-purchase limit at $1,000 for all employees. He said that the proposed limits are different than DeSoto because the numbers of cards and transactions are greater in Charlottesville than at his last job.
Spending limits for government employees vary between localities across the state.
Botetourt County has a $2,500 cap on individual and daily purchases and a $5,000 monthly limit. Chesapeake has a $5,000 single purchase limit, and the monthly cap is $5,000 in Orange County.
Some localities have more flexibility in determining limits. The city of Roanoke has a $5,000 single-item limit, but the monthly spending cap is determined by each department. Both limits are determined at the department level in Manassas.
A review of all statements for the second half of 2019 shows at least 100 expenditures that fall outside of the proposed limit for the employee who made the charge. The number might be higher because the management level for every employee is not readily apparent.
Forty-six purchases are for more than the highest proposed single-purchase limit for any employee, with 25 exceeding $3,000 and seven surpassing $4,000. The largest expense was $4,745 for basketball jerseys for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Wheeler was the only department director to exceed the proposed limits, with purchases of $4,117 for a producer camera package and $2,759 for studio equipment for Charlottesville Public Access Television. He also spent $3,069 on audio for a Unity Days event.
Wheeler said that the proposed limits would ensure proper safeguards for such large expenditures.
“Department directors would simply need to anticipate the time required for the approval process, if they wish to use a credit card,” he said.
The proposed policy is similar to the one Richardson instituted as city manager of DeSoto, Texas. He has said the policy would have helped that city’s Economic Development Corporation and Charlottesville avoid recent scandals related to credit card expenditures.
Richardson said that while reviewing city policies, he identified the credit card policy as one that “could benefit from some improvements.”
“Credit cards are a legitimate and efficient way to procure goods and services within our budget in a timely manner,” he said. “The new policy will ensure some additional level of accountability for large transactions.”
The current policy has a five-stage review process.
To use a card, the cardholder must first make sure the purchase is in line with the city’s policy.
Next, the department head reviews the statements and receipts before they are passed on to the accounts payable and receivable office in the finance department.
The finance director then signs off on the expenditure. An auditor reviews a random sample of transactions during the annual audit.
Under the proposed policy, purchases would be reviewed by a designated employee who forwards them to the department director for approval.
Statements for the city manager, department directors, constitutional officers, mayor, City Council and the council clerk will be approved by the finance director.
The city manager will approve statements for the finance director, deputy city manager and city attorney.
The policy says that cards will be immediately suspended for noncompliance or misuse. Examples of noncompliance include repeatedly failing to provide documentation of purchases, intentional violation of the policy, purchasing alcohol and not reporting a lost or stolen card within the designated timeframe.
Examples of misuse include splitting purchases to avoid purchase limits, receiving cash advances and intentionally allowing someone else to charge personal expenses.
If a card is lost or stolen, the employee must inform the department director within one business day. The director must then make a written report within 24 hours.