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Credit card mess is a reason for change in 2012

By Scott Tibbs, December 27, 2011

The pathetic record keeping for county government's credit cards demonstrates why Monroe County voters need to vote for local offices on local issues instead of national or international issues. Local Democrats took advantage of tides against George W. Bush in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and we have seen the results of that.

Last month, Monroe County Auditor Amy Gerstman wrote a personal check for $2,592.75 to reimburse county government after she was unable to locate a credit card statement from January. But that's just the beginning of the mess. It was later discovered that personal expenses have been charged to county cards and reimbursed, leading to a request for public records by the local newspaper.

It is not unheard of for personal expenses to be accidentally charged to a company card and then repaid - or for a company expense to be accidentally charged to a personal card and then reimbursed. Sometimes people use the wrong card. That is certainly not an ideal situation by any means, but it's not necessarily a crisis. County employees who have authorization to use credit cards need to be very careful about proper use.

The big question in this controversy is context, and only a thorough audit of the credit card statements can determine if people were simply careless with county credit cards or whether there were isolated incidents. Which county departments had incidents of personal expenses reimbursed by the county?

Clearly, reform is needed. Here is one thing the county should do, if they do not do it already: Scan in all of the receipts along with the credit card statement to PDF. Then any time someone wants to see the statements, they can get them via CD, or (if the file size of a specific statement is small enough, say no more than 2 MB) have it sent via an e-mail attachment. Not only would it allow rapid access to the statements for county employees auditing them, it would allow a turnaround of less than a day for public records requests.

The hard paper records also need to be saved, obviously.

But the credit card mess gets worse. On December 17, the Herald-Times reported that after two weeks, county government was still not able to provide the number of credit cards the county has.

This is simply unacceptable. Losing the January credit card statement in the move from the courthouse to Showers is obviously bad and indicates poor internal controls on documents. But how could the county not know how many credit cards it has? If nothing else there should be a spreadsheet - or even a text file - with a list of all the cards. Not knowing how many cards there are makes the situation a prime target for abuse.

The real scandal is not that inappropriate expenses are made and then reimbursed. As I said above, sometimes people use the wrong card and it's not a crisis as long as these mistakes are very rare and there are procedures in place to safeguard against it. The real scandal is that record keeping in county government is so shoddy that we now have a situation where county government does not even know how many credit cards it has.

After the county Auditor's Office had been controlled by Republicans for twenty years, a Democrat was elected in the anti-Bush wave of 2004. The incumbent Auditor did such a poor job that she was defeated in her own party's primary by a margin of 11,722 to 7,762. The winner went on to victory in the general election over a Republican who had worked in the Auditor's Office for more than twenty years and was far more qualified than her Democratic opponent. No human resources manager would have hired the Democrat, but she won thanks to Barack Obama.

I have said before that we need to reform county government. But that would require a change to Indiana's constitution that would take a while to get on the ballot, even if the legislature made it a priority in 2012. (And we know that will not happen.) But one thing we can do in Monroe County is stop voting for local races based only on who we support for President. Republicans have a great opportunity to win local races in 2012.