Fulton Chairman Pitts: purchasing card system ‘too loosey goosey’

Some Fulton County commissioners say their colleagues are spending too much taxpayer money on unreasonable things and want to change the way their fellow county leaders use public money.

The issue of the regulations around purchasing cards (p-cards) and travel cards (t-cards) has been bubbling up for weeks and appears to have come to a head Wednesday, when a report of all the expenses was discussed at the county commission meeting.

Chairman Robb Pitts said he doesn't think they have a system that encourages honesty and relies too heavily on county staff to raise questions about purchases. The county's financial chief said there are four points where issues can be flagged, but those aren't enough for Pitts.

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"What bureaucrat would be strong enough to say no to any request from a commissioner no matter how far-fetched?" Pitts said.

“We can lie and get away with it until we get caught,” the chairman added.

Commissioner Bob Ellis on Wednesday proposed lowering the amount that commissioners can spend for travel and training each year back to $13,000 — the amount it was a year ago before commissioners raised the limit to $50,000.

“There becomes an issue of public trust where at a certain point in time, are you really using these funds to carry out the duties of your job or use this to sort of engage in potential campaign activities,” Ellis said. “So there’s a fine line there, and I think there’s a reason why many governments have kept those expenditure caps very low to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

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Ellis called out some individual expenditures, like Commissioner Natalie Hall's trip to Los Angeles. Hall said she was in L.A. doing research because on the possibility of a Grammy museum in her district, but the county agreed six months before that trip to do a feasibility study for the museum.

Hall also attended a red carpet event for the Bounce Trumpet Awards while she was there, saying Wednesday that she wanted to “maximize” her trip.

Maximum raised last year after brief discussion

In January 2019, Hall proposed increasing maximum spending from $13,000 to $39,000 per board member.

But Commissioner Marvin Arrington suggested the $50,000, saying that would be more appropriate to train themselves and staff. And after less than 10 minutes of discussion, commissioners tripled their own spending levels by a 4-2 vote.

The Fulton travel and training budget per commissioner is greater than some whole county commissioner budget lines. As previously reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Clayton budgeted $67,000 for commissioners in 2018; Cobb allocated $50,500; and Gwinnett allowed $41,985 for commissioner travel and training in 2017.

Hall said Wednesday that at the time of the vote she hadn’t been on the Board as long as Arrington, but now she wants the number at $30,000. The whole process was paused because of a parliamentary issue raised by Arrington.

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Pitts said the issue will be back at the next meeting and hopefully they can get a transparent process in place. “I still think it’s too loosey-goosey,” he said.

For instance, Fulton’s Chief Financial Officer Sharon Whitmore said the limit for p-cards single purchases is $2,499.99. When Arrington pointed out that there were expenditures above that limit, Whitmore responded: “We’ll go back and look at that.”

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Our reporting:

An AJC investigation found inappropriate p-card use in the city of Atlanta. Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spent extravagantly on hotels, airfare and food with his city-issued credit card, and that Reed's chief financial officer purchased guns and paid a $10,000 hotel bill in Paris with his taxpayer-backed card. Reed repaid taxpayers more than $50,000 for his purchases, and former CFO Jim Beard repaid taxpayers for his hotel in Paris.