Charlottesville needs clearer limits on the amount city councilors can charge to their city-issued credit cards — and more transparency about how such spending decisions are made.
At their recent retreat, councilors discussed new limits and also directed City Manager Tarron Richardson to research the types of spending policies other localities employ.
The city’s nearest neighboring government, Albemarle County, doesn’t have such a policy — because it doesn’t need one. Members of the Board of Supervisors aren’t given credit cards to begin with.
Presently, Charlottesville’s one-paragraph policy mandates that city-issued credit cards be used “only for the purchase of goods, materials, and/or services for the direct use of the city.”
It also says the cards must be used “in accordance with the City Manager’s Credit Card Procedures.” Those procedures and related forms comprise a 13-page document detailing proper use of cards. The procedures apply not only to councilors but also to city employees who have city-issued cards.
Much of the document is technical, dealing with IRS regulations, the collection and maintenance of receipts, and the like.
The procedures do include a limit of $5,000 for a non-travel single purchase and a 30-day limit of $20,000.
Non-travel purchases likely would apply more often to city employees than to city councilors, since their duties involve day-to-day operations for which such purchases might be necessary.
An exception is Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s catered lunches with staff, which cost around $1,000 — a non-travel expense.
The procedures also re-enforce the language of the policy, saying that the cards can be used only for “city purchases and travel expenses that meet a public purpose” — including meals, which “must be for a particular public purpose” and “directly related to a business matter,” among other warnings.
The procedures are quite detailed in many respects. So why the current interest in revisiting the issue and potentially revising the policy?
For all their detail, the policy and procedures don’t appear to deal adequately with travel expenses. The procedures are clear about dollar limits on non-travel purchases, but do not limit travel purchases. “Not applicable” is the wording for “Single purchase limit (travel).”
Of course, purchases would be limited by a card’s own spending ceiling, but these ceilings are not transparent to the public. In any case, every time the city paid off a bill, the card’s available credit would increase again. Theoretically, a card with just a $1,000 limit could be maxed out every month, paid off every month, and maxed out again — leading to $12,000 in annual charges.
Thankfully, city councilors have not been on this type of spending spree. Councilors have spent $29,876 over the two years ending this past June.
That amounts to just over $300 per month per person. (Four of the five councilors used their cards; Heather Hill never did.)
The dollar amounts do not appear excessive.
But without clear spending limits to act as a restraint, that state of affairs could change next year, next month or 10 years from now.
Charlottesville would be better served by adding more specificity to its policy and procedures.
Councilors considered a $5,000 spending limit per councilor, with a slightly higher figure for the mayor, who is often called upon to represent the city at events.
They also suggested receiving regular reports from conferences. This proposal seems to address the portions of the policy and procedures specifying that travel expenses must be for the purpose of “conducting City business.”
If travel to conferences generates a public benefit, then reports on what was learned would both confirm the public nature of the event and be a means of sharing those benefits with other councilors and with the public.
“We need to be very careful about how we spend taxpayers’ money,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said.
She’s absolutely right.
To date, councilors’ use of cards has not been “improper” or “illegal” — but some uses might have been unwise. A clearer policy could help prevent even unwise spending, whether now or by another set of councilors.
And a more transparent policy that would let taxpayers see for themselves how money is being spent would reassure them that the money is being spent wisely.