ST. LUCIE COUNTY — County credit card records show employees charged a total of $2.8 million in purchases between October 2010 and November 2011 with total charges ranging from under $1,000 up to $80,000 on a single card.
And the cost for at least one official’s annual travel adds up to the yearly salary of a county road and bridge equipment operator.
Of the county’s 639 full-time and part-time employees, 259 of them have county credit cards.
Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers reviewed purchases — made between October 2010 and November 2011 — from a sampling of more than three dozen employees. The investigation found:
Treasure Coast Research Park Executive Director Ben DeVries went on 33 trips in a year at a total cost of $22,725 — or the yearly salary of a road and bridge equipment operator. He said the trips are necessary to market the park and attract future tenants, though he conceded some trips ended up being a waste of money.
DeVries insisted on upgrading lunches fed to the Research Park’s 10-member board of directors to provide a more “collegial” atmosphere at meetings. The average cost of the lunches are $100 per meeting. The board sometimes meets more than once per month. DeVries characterized the meal upgrade as a perk for the volunteer board members.
County Administrator Faye Outlaw went on eight trips totaling $11,523 in a year, including to Portland, Ore., to accept an award. Then-County Commission Chairman Chris Craft accompanied Outlaw to receive the award. The trip totaled $5,357. Outlaw and Craft said the trips provide valuable learning opportunities and help promote the county in a positive light.
Outlaw’s membership in the National Forum for Black Public Administrators cost taxpayers $3,030 annually. She flew to Chicago in April 2011 for seven days to attend a conference by the organization. That trip cost $2,710. Outlaw said she has given up her membership in the organization, which would eliminate her membership fee and travel to its three quarterly leadership meetings.
The newspaper began reviewing the county’s credit card expenses after an audit of what the county spent on items for the controversial wedding reception of St. Lucie County Clerk of the Circuit Court Joe Smith and former Assistant County Attorney Heather Smith raised questions as to why so many employees had county-issued credit cards.
The audit concluded the county spent at least $20,030 of taxpayer money on the Smiths’ May 28, 2011 wedding reception at the county-owned Havert L. Fenn Center on Virginia Avenue.
It also found some county employees with credit cards circumvented purchasing policies when buying items for the Smiths’ reception by splitting charges for single purchases to avoid going over purchasing limits. The maximum monthly limit for a county credit card is up to $10,000, according to the county’s purchasing card policy.
The Smith wedding reception investigation prompted the county to revamp its credit card policy in November to make it tougher for county employees to abuse the system. The policy stipulates that before an employee is issued a county credit card it must be approved by the county administrator instead of department directors. Additionally, all purchases must be signed off by employees and a staff member.
If employees go over their single or monthly purchasing limits, the credit card company will automatically reject the purchases.
County spokesman Erick Gill noted that for the past three years, the county has received $80,634 worth of rebates from the credit card company for using the purchasing cards.
In addition to frequent out-of-state trips and food for public events and board meetings, employees made charges for new equipment, office supplies and furniture and equipment repairs.
The $80,000 charged on a single card during the period between October 2010 and November 2011 was by a Solid Waste inventory parts specialist. Some of those charges included buying truck parts, paint and chemicals.
Former Parks and Recreation Director Debra Brisson, who resigned amid the Smiths’ wedding reception controversy, charged $18,910 on her county-issued card from October 2010 to November 2011. Many of the items she charged, such as fabric, lighting and glassware, were for the Smiths’ wedding reception.
Since 2008, the county has cut more than $200 million from the budget by cutting staff and reducing services.
Some trips ‘a waste of money’
DeVries hasn’t brought in any new development to the Treasure Coast Research Park since taking the helm in early 2009, but he’s raked in the credit card bills.
He charged a total of $50,570 — about half of which was for travel expenses — on his county credit card between October 2010 and November 2011. Other expenses include food, marketing materials, membership dues, office supplies and cellphone usage.
DeVries said the trips are necessary and vital to marketing the park and networking with potential tenant prospects.