St. Lucie employees put $2.8M on county credit cards in less than year

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.

"The

people we're trying to reach are site selection people," he said. "Most major corporations won't move to St. Lucie County until they've hired somebody to investigate St. Lucie County and our park. So we go to trade shows to get the story out so that the national site selection experts know that we're here."

DeVries went on 33 in-state and out-of-state trips in the 2010-2011 budget year, records show. DeVries traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., in May 2011 to attend the Industrial Asset Management Council Professional Forum. That group consists of corporate real estate people who represent major pharmaceutical manufacturing companies, DeVries said.

The six-day trip cost $3,272. Four months later, DeVries attended the same group's fall conference in Philadelphia at a cost of $2,553.

DeVries said though the park's main focus is to attract food, energy and water-related research entities, he attended the Industrial Management Council Professional Forum "because early on we thought that we were going to play a role in the biotech pharmaceutical business because we thought that was a market niche. Not that it's no longer, but the whole biotech industry has gone through a retrenchment. The foot is not on the gas pedal looking for new locations.

"We're open to any organization that wants to create jobs in St. Lucie County," he said.

DeVries, who makes $80,850 annually, also traveled to Washington, D.C.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Alexandria, Va., and Atlanta to attend conferences and training sessions.

The park, which is financed by the county, has an annual budget of $358,058. DeVries has $8,287 worth of annual memberships, including to the American Institute of Real Estate and the Association of University Research Parks — two of his most expensive memberships, which cost $1,575 and $2,000 respectively. The memberships are charged to DeVries' purchasing card.

He said the memberships are a benefit because they can drastically discount the cost of conferences and they help market the park.

"It helps us understand what the customers need while we're getting the story of the park out there, and it builds relationships," he said.

DeVries said the dollars spent on the trips are minimal compared with the big picture of attracting investors to the park, which could create tens of thousands of new jobs. But, DeVries conceded, some of the trips can be a waste of money.

"You just don't want to poke your own eyes out and be stupid because you're saving a few dollars when you're missing these issues that could really come back to haunt you 20 years from now," he said. "Sometimes we do go places where it was a waste of money and not because we tried to. We tried to go to someplace that was good, and we got there and there were no site selection people there or there's nothing that really gave us any insight.

"I tell people ... 70 percent of your marketing budget is a waste of money, you just don't know what 70 percent it is," DeVries said.

County Commission Chairman Chris Dzadovsky, a former Treasure Coast Research Park board member, said DeVries has a tough job when it comes to cutting back on travel expenses.

"When you're trying to secure businesses and be in front of the groups that he has to be in front of to build that research park out, that's a necessary evil," Dzadovsky said. "Now, does it mean that 33 trips is responsible? I don't know. I haven't been on that (research park) board for a year or so."

The 1,650-acre park is anchored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 170,000 square-foot Horticultural Research Laboratory and the 90,000 square-foot University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The master plan for the Research Park calls for more than 800 developed acres to house education and development and 850 acres for agriculture fields and for future growth, according to the park's website. However, there has been no development on the property since the concept was introduced in 2005.

DeVries said he can't attract tenants until the park's infrastructure, including utilities, is built.

In addition to his travel, DeVries provides food from Panera Bread for the Research Park's monthly board meetings and other gatherings. Those meals usually cost about $100 or more per meeting and feed about a dozen people.

DeVries said the food is a way to provide board members with a relaxed and "collegial" setting. He said before he was hired the board was provided with "cheap," or subpar sandwiches from an unnamed local eatery.

"When I got there I was like, ‘Do you eat this stuff for lunch?' " DeVries said. "I said, ‘Well, can't we get Panera's and at least have a ham sandwich? Because you're working these people, No. 1, and you want them to have fun and enjoy themselves. When something is a positive environment and people are relaxed, I think, I get a better response out of these people. When they come in they get a cookie or a handful of salad or something. They're coming to the

meetings, and they are part of a family, and they are breaking bread together. And they're laughing. We do work, but it's a collegial setting."

Eight trips cost $11,523

Outlaw charged $9,523 in expenses on her county credit card between October 2010 and November 2011. She went on eight trips for a total cost of $11,523, records show. Some of Outlaw's travel expenses, such as registration fees and hotel deposits, are charged to her assistant Ja'net Pentz's county credit card. Pentz's card totaled $6,132. Outlaw earns a yearly salary of $164,999.

In October 2010, Outlaw traveled to San Jose, Calif., to attend a four-day conference hosted by the International City/County Management Association. The total cost of that trip was $2,950.

She also flew to Chicago in April 2011 for seven days to attend a conference by the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. That trip cost $2,710.

Outlaw's annual membership in that group cost taxpayers $3,030 annually. In all, Outlaw has three annual memberships totaling $4,845. Those annual memberships are paid with county checks.

Outlaw took a back-to-back 10-day trip in July 2011. First, she flew to Portland, Ore., for five days to accept an award during the 2011 National Association of Counties Annual Conference and Exposition. American City & County magazine named Outlaw as its 2011 "County Leader of the Year." Then Outlaw flew from Portland to Washington, D.C., for four days to attend the National Forum for Black Public Administrators summer leadership program. Both trips combined totaled $3,441.

Craft also flew to Portland with Outlaw to accept the award. Craft's Portland trip cost $2,988.

Outlaw, who went from assistant county administrator to county administrator in 2009, defended her expenses, saying she voluntarily gave up her end-of-probation 5 percent salary increase in 2009, which she said equates to $8,250 annually.

"Whether it's in flush or tight budget times, I'm always conscientious about being a good steward of taxpayers' dollars," she said.

Outlaw said as a first-time county administrator, training and development is valuable and is primarily obtained through conferences. She said her travels to conferences and meetings have given her a platform to promote and garner broad exposure for St. Lucie County.

"The training and development gained from conferences have helped sharpen my skills, as well as develop new skills and knowledge, which have helped me be a better administrator," she said. "That is a benefit to our staff, organization and pays dividends to our community."

Asked what benefit county taxpayers gain from her membership and attendance at the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, Outlaw explained she had been a member of the organization since she was hired in 2004 as assistant county administrator. She said she was elected to the organization's board of directors in 2010, which requires a $3,030 annual membership. She said she declined to run for re-election to the board in December, eliminating her membership and travel to its meetings.

"The board meetings are leadership positions, and the quarterly meetings typically include training and development," Outlaw said. "To the extent that training and development enhances my skills as county administrator, it bears dividends."

Craft said Outlaw's participation in the group helped cast a positive spotlight on St. Lucie County.

"Obviously, it's a black caucus, but the fact that she's African-American and female is a double plus," Craft said. "She's always being asked to speak at different things because of that alone.

"I think for far too long people had kind of looked down their nose at St. Lucie County, and when we have an opportunity to go and showcase what we've done, we need to take those opportunities because then people come here to see what we've done."

Outlaw said accepting her award wasn't the only reason she went to Portland. She also went to attend workshops and accept 10 other awards for the county. The county received the awards mainly for its ability to streamline and consolidate numerous county departments during the economic recession, county officials said.

"It's not a common occurrence where our county has been so highly recognized," Outlaw said. "And as county administrator, it was important to attend the conference for the training, as well as receive the individual award and the awards for our organization."

Credit card policy revamped

The county revised its credit card policy in November 2011, stipulating that before an employee is issued a county credit card it must be approved by the county administrator instead of department directors.

The county's purchasing policy specifically spells out what employees can and can't do while using the purchasing cards, county spokesman Erick Gill said.

"Employees have been told that if they are encouraged to break these rules by any other employee, including their supervisor,

the employee is to report the incident to the manager of employee relations," Gill said.

Each month statements for every card are given to each department, Gill said. Employees and their supervisors review the monthly statement. The employee who is issued the card must sign off on all the purchases, and a staff member has to assign each purchase a line item in the department's budget, Gill said.

CREDIT CARD POLICIES

• County credit card issuance must be approved by the county administrator.

• The maximum monthly limit of a county credit card is up to $10,000.

• A system is in place to prevent employees from going over maximum purchasing limits. If employees go over maximum single or monthly limits, the purchase is automatically rejected by the credit card company.

• Purchase orders must be used for all capital equipment purchases of $1,000 or more or anytime something is purchased as a result of a county contract. Purchase orders also are used if a purchase is over the single-purchase limit of a card holder.

• The use of credit cards provides staff with quicker access to purchase items for county operations, including ordering products and services online.

• There is no interest accrued on county credit cards because purchases are paid in full each month. The county also receives an annual monetary rebate for using the cards.

• There is no requirement to seek quotes or bids from companies on all purchases of $5,000 or less.

• As oversight, employees and supervisors in each department are required to review their monthly credit card statements. The cardholder must sign off on all purchases, and a staff member has to assign each purchase a line item in the department's budget.


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