Only Lake Co. board members have debit cards for expenses, inquiry shows

Of the five counties in the Chicago area, only the commissioners in Lake County are assigned taxpayer-funded debit cards to cover work expenses, a Daily Herald inquiry showed.

In most other area counties, commissioners must seek reimbursement for job-related purchases after they’re made. Some have to cover all work-related costs themselves.

But not in Lake County, where county commissioners have procurement cards — called p-cards for short — with $4,500 annual limits at their disposal. And they’ve used those cards to make more than $99,000 in purchases since they were first issued in 2005, a review of county records revealed.

Card use is monitored by county staff, but it’s up to individual commissioners to decide how to use their cards, County Administrator Barry Burton said.

Some use them to pay for airline tickets and hotel stays that coincide with national governmental conferences. Others have used them to pay for meals, Internet services, limousine rides and a variety of other products or services they’ve said are work-related.

“The board members have to make the determination of how best to serve their constituents,” Burton said.

But in these tough economic times — and with voters paying particular attention to government spending and waste — commissioners should think twice before reaching for the cards, a Chicago-area government watchdog said.

“The perception is probably worse than the reality,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “What you don’t need at a time like this is to create cynicism among the voters and the taxpaying public.”

How the cards work

Averaging about $15,677 a year, p-card usage represents a fraction of Lake County’s $480 million annual budget.

The cards were introduced in January 2005 to boost efficiency. Previously, the county board chairman had to approve board members’ individual expense reimbursements after purchases were made and decide if each request was legitimate, Burton said.

The cards have maximum account balances of $4,500 per fiscal year, starting each December. Board members do not get to keep whatever portion of the $4,500 limit isn’t spent at the end of the fiscal year, and the balance does not roll over to the next fiscal year.

Board members who aren’t issued p-cards — and there have been a few each year — still have access to personal $4,500 expense accounts. They simply must submit reimbursement requests and the appropriate receipts to get the cash back.

P-card usage is overseen by employees in the county board office and by the finance department, Burton said. Receipts must be provided for all transactions, and if purchases don’t look right, they’ll be questioned, officials said.

“There’s a check and balance,” Burton said. “You can’t just go out and purchase whatever. We do verify the purchases under the p-card.”

Still, a certain amount of good faith is required. Even if a board member is turning in receipts, administrators must trust the pens being purchased will be used for board-related work or that county business was discussed over a lunch paid for with a p-card.

Additionally, no county rules specifically define what types of purchases are proper or improper.

That’s OK, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based watchdog group. If officials tried to create an exhaustive list of improper purchases, they could inadvertently omit one or include an item that actually is legitimate, he said.

Plus, the problem isn’t necessarily with the item itself, Morrison said. It’s what the board member plans to do with it.

“If a commissioner buys doughnuts for a constituent meeting, that’s fine,” he said. “If a commissioner buys doughnuts for campaign workers, it isn’t.”

Other counties

No other Chicago-area county provides debit cards — or even individual expense accounts — for its commissioners.

Cook County commissioners have access to contingency funds from which they can be reimbursed for job-related purchases after filling out appropriate requests. In McHenry County, board members also must seek reimbursement for job-related expenses.

In DuPage County, commissioners can be reimbursed for official trips to Washington, D.C., or to national county conferences, but they’re not reimbursed for meals with constituents or other office-related expenses, said Fred Backfield, DuPage’s chief financial officer.

Kane County Board members are expected to cover virtually all job-related expenses themselves, officials said. Last fall, the board enacted a policy eliminating such payouts as a cost-saving move, said Ken Shepro, the Kane board’s attorney.

“There are no routine or automatic reimbursements,” Shepro said. “The only compensation is their salary.”

That’s not the case in Lake County, where the expense accounts are in addition to salaries that, for most board members, are $40,945 or $42,480 a year, depending on when they were last elected. Only the board chairman makes more: $81,890.

The Daily Herald reviewed hundreds of pages of the Lake board’s p-card statements. The statements are public record and include purchases made through April 11.

Many of the purchases were obviously job-related, such as registration fees for National Association of Counties conferences, travel to those events and hotel stays in the host cities. The board’s biggest spenders all attended conferences, including some in Washington, D.C., Hawaii and other out-of-town locales, records show.

But not all purchases were easily identified. Unspecified purchases at drugstores, restaurants, office-supply stores and post offices were recorded on some p-card statements.

The most prolific p-card user has been Waukegan Democrat Mary Ross Cunningham, who rang up more than $14,500 in expenses over the last six years, reports show.

Her purchases included national county conference admissions, stays at a Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., and at a Hilton hotel in Honolulu for such conferences, airline tickets and limousine services.

Cunningham, who serves on the national county association’s economic development committee, insisted the conferences aren’t pleasure trips.

“I’m up in the morning and in (meetings) until 5:30 or 6 in the evening,” she said. “You don’t get any free time.”

The trips, Cunningham said, are worth the expense. When in Washington, D.C., for example, she said she can meet with senators and congressmen about county issues.

“I get a lot out of it,” she said. “I’m going there for good reason.”

Cunningham said she has also used her p-card to pay for fliers or newsletters sent to her constituents about flu shots and other county programs. Other board members have funded similar individual efforts with their cards.

If Cunningham is at one end of the p-card spectrum, County Board Chairman David Stolman is at the other. He has a p-card but never used it between 2005 and 2010, according to county records.

Stolman deliberately pays for work-related expenses out of his own pocket and doesn’t seek reimbursements.

“That’s just the way I’ve been,” explained Stolman, a Buffalo Grove Republican who was named chairman last December. “I always thought I could handle things on my own.”

With the county experiencing the same economic struggles as the rest of the nation, that’s even more important now, Stolman said. So he avoids going to out-of-town governmental conventions or ringing up other bills on the county dime.

“If I can save (the county) some money, I don’t have to go to a convention,” he said.

Most of the other county board members fall somewhere in the middle. In 2010, the average spending for the 11 members who used p-cards was $976.24.

Only five commissioners spent more than $1,000 with the cards last year, records show. Of those, three — North Chicago Democrat Audrey Nixon, Grayslake Democrat Pat Carey and Waukegan Democrat Angelo Kyle — spent more than $2,000 in 2010, records show.

Burton isn’t worried about the spending disparity.

If some board members feel the best way to serve residents is by serving with national governmental agencies or by attending conferences around the country, they can do so, Burton said — and they legitimately can charge the county.

“(Some members) view their jobs very differently,” Burton said. “As long as they adhere to the guidelines that were established by the county board rules, that’s fine.”

Spending alternatives

Although Burton and the board members believe Lake County’s p-card system works well, the potential for abuse exists, Martire said.

“It would be easy to make an acquisition for home that looks like an acquisition for the office,” he said.

From a strictly budgetary standpoint, Martire suggested the county cap conference-related spending to keep costs down. Board members could stay at budget hotels during such trips rather than use more expensive lodging, he said.

“Limits on meals and hotel rooms would make sense,” Martire said.

With government agencies across the state slashing budgets, county officials should first rein in their own administrative costs, Martire added. Such restraint would give them credibility with voters, he said.

“When they hear stuff like this, (people say), ‘Aw, come on — it’s all a boondoggle,’” Martire said.

Mary Ross Cunningham