NBC Montana investigates city's use of credit cards


MISSOULA, Mont. - At a recent meeting the Missoula City Council signed off on $30,759 worth of credit card bills -- taxpayer money spent on credit cards issued to city employees.

We've spent months combing through statements and receipts to find out how your money's being spent.

Our NBC Montana investigation turned up new information that questions whether city administrators have a handle on who's buying what.

We've found, on average, Missoula pays close to $30,000 a month in credit card bills rung up by the 46 employees we're told are approved to carry a city credit card. That's roughly 10 percent of the city's workforce.

The city provided us with a list of credit approved employees. On it you'll find Mayor John Engen, department heads and administrative assistants.

Like us, people we talked with are curious on who is spending what. One Missoula resident told us, "I would like to know what they were doing with the credit cards. I think there should be a paper trail on that."

We traced that paper trail over four months of statements.

Here are some of the city's biggest spenders: Parks and Recreation manager Shirley Kinsey with a total just over $14,000. Don Verrue from development services totaled close to $6,200. Missoula Police Department training Officer Truman Tolson's spent approximately $5,400.

Small business owner Mark Rothman knows the importance of good bookkeeping. "I think keeping receipts and keeping track of all that is absolutely the necessary accountability," he said.

We checked four months of Missoula credit card statements and average expenses. They show close to $1,000 a month spent on food -- meals, water, coffee, ice and tips.

Click here to view Missoula credit card statements from June, July, September and October of 2016.

Once we did the math, we sent an email and asked for "signed and approved purchase orders/documents, per the city's administrative code" for 26 separate transactions we chose at random.

Here is some of what we found: $132 spent on four rib-eye dinners at the Lolo Creek Steakhouse, $85 at Bridge Pizza for a lunch meeting, $220 in bills for three days of interviews for firefighter candidates and $210 at the Mustard Seed.

Click here to see all receipts in our information request.

Once we tallied up the food costs, projected to total $12,000 a year, we asked to talk to the mayor about what's acceptable use of a city credit card for food. He declined an interview. Instead his office sent us to Steve Johnson, the director of central services.

We showed him our stack of documents.

He explained the difference between authorized and unauthorized purchases. "Generally speaking, food is not an authorized purchase unless there is advance approval either by the department head or the chief administrative officer."

Johnson went on to explain that meals are purchased for trainings or meetings where employees are required to stay on the job during a meal time.

"Training activities are another time when you'll sometimes see those purchases take place … but those should really be the exception rather than the rule. Those should not be a recurring thing," said Johnson.

We kept searching random receipts and statements. We found development services spent over $2,300 in two months at stores like Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse and Murdoch's. We're told the clothing the city purchased on those receipts is allowed under collective bargaining.

Here is some of what you are buying for those employees: a $25 graphic T-shirt, Levi 501 jeans at $47.99, over $46 worth of Skullcandy earbuds and Keen water sandals that sell for $99.99.

We asked Johnson about those items. He said, "In some cases where we have a clothing allowance, I don't know that we have controls in place to determine what people buy with that, but I think that would typically be questioned by either the finance office in their internal review of those kinds of purchases or it would be looked at by the internal auditors for their internal audit. That would be the kind of thing that I would have to look at in a case-by-case basis and get some more information from the people who made those purchases about what those purchases were for."

Each statement shows more of how your money's spent.

For instance, Rod Austin, the parking commission director, charged $699 for an International Parking Institute conference. This year it is held in New Orleans. We also found Austin had four charges for travel totaling over $1,700. When we asked for an explanation the city spokeswoman, Ginny Merriam, emailed us a response.

Here is a portion of it:

"In the next few years, the City is looking at several new lots and structures. We have some gate arms that don't perform as well as Rod and Parking would like, and he went to see what else is out there. In Seattle, he went to the University of Washington, where they have gate arms with new technology. In Vancouver, he went to the west coast office of T2, the company that manufactures the LUKE electronic parking meters that the City of Missoula installed last year. He looked at the gate arms that T2 manufactures. They integrate with the LUKE meters. Then he went to the University of British Columbia, also in Vancouver, where they use license plate recognition software instead of physical gates. The technology looks at the license plate and recognizes leaseholders, etc."

Then we found the $1,400 spent on what's called a Snow Rodeo. The Street Maintenance Division superintendent describes it as an "equipment training conference" complete with a snow plow competition the city has won.

When you add it all up, the four months we reviewed show Missoula is charging roughly $300,000 a year, one swipe at a time.

Three days after our interview with Johnson he sent us an email. It was followed up by another from city Merriam. Both asked us to help them find information about the purchase of the Keen water sandals and the earbuds.

We received the receipt for the shoes in January in a public information request. We found information showing a city employee order Skullcandy earbuds from Amazon.

So, how does Missoula stack up to other cities? We will take a look at that Monday night at 10 p.m.

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