Lake County should review, tighten p-card program

It’s no surprise that residents in Illinois and elsewhere are growing more mindful about waste and mismanagement in government these days. The weak economy and reports of corruption and inefficiency have opened raw wounds with taxpayers about how government handles our money.

With that in mind, it would be wise for Lake County officials to review their procurement card program that funds commissioner office expenses, and look to add some guidelines and safeguards. The unique program gives commissioners debit cards — known as p-cards — with $4,500 limits to pay for work-related expenses.

The program was created to boost efficiency, and it differs from programs in other counties where commissioners must seek reimbursement for job-related purchases after they are made, or pay for their own expenses.

In his recent On Guard story examining the cards, Daily Herald reporter Russell Lissau found that watchdogs recommend commissioners think twice before reaching for the cards and offer ideas to tighten up the program.

“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 taxpaying public.”

There’s certainly no shortage of evidence of public mistrust of government. A Pew Research Center survey in April showed that “by almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days.”

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

A certain amount of good faith must go into this program, and there are no rules defining what types of purchases are proper or improper.

That’s troubling, given the shenanigans we’ve seen elsewhere, as in, for example, the DuPage Water Commission and DuPage Housing Authority, where poor accounting and lackadaisical managerial oversight have resulted in misspent funds.

True, there have been no reports yet of p-card misuse, but experts say the potential for abuse exists. Watchdog Martire points out it would be easy under this system to make an acquisition for the home that looks like an acquisition for the office.

He also suggests the county cap conference-related spending to hold down costs for items like hotels and meals. Reining in administrative costs shows restraint and builds credibility with voters at a time when both are sorely needed.

We say “Amen!” to that.