Berkeley County is working toward a system of better oversight with regard to finances, and tightening up departments’ spending practices is one solution, according to county staff.
That means reevaluating which county employees truly need purchasing cards—dubbed “p-cards”—and how much money employees should be allowed to spend with the cards, according to Les Blankenship, deputy county supervisor.
“Some departments need p-cards more than others, and they use them in different ways,” he said. “We want to make sure…the right people have the cards and they’re using them for the right things.”
The discussion arose during County Council’s meeting on Monday, when Blankenship told the governing body that the review of the p-card program is occurring at the request of Supervisor Johnny Cribb and the council. Since taking office in January, Cribb has worked with staff to cut wasteful spending and restructure county departments to save money.
Blankenship said the county is looking to “take up a bunch” of the currently-issued p-cards and is meeting with each department head to determine which employees most utilize the cards and what their expenses entail. County Spokesperson Hannah Moldenhauer said at least 229 of Berkeley County’s 1,280 employees have a p-card.
To compare, as of Tuesday Dorchester County had an employee count of 952, with 54 p-cards issued, said County Spokesperson Tiffany Norton.
“It’s a lot easier to manager 150 people than it is to manage 229,” Blankenship said. “If you’re using (the card) so little, well then you don’t need one; if you need a p-card, then you can find somebody else to do it in your department.”
Councilman Kevin Cox told Blankenship he thinks staff should double check purchase receipts with items’ serial numbers, since in the past employees have used p-cards to buy non-work-related items.
“We need to tie the receipts to the p-card to see if they match,” Cox said.
According to Blankenship, there’s been no past wrongdoing that’s driving staff to make the p-card changes; he said the idea is solely a proactive measure to allow the county to take a look at how it’s handling its finances while also increasing transparency and preventing overspending.
“We don’t think there’s anybody doing anything wrong but we just want to make sure we’ve got the proper oversight,” Blankenship said.
Other goals include limiting departments’ line-item transfers—a “sore point” with council and administration, since many transfers are occurring after money is spent, rather than before, Blankenship said—along with capping card spending.
“There are people in the county who’ve got some fairly high limits both on a per transaction basis and on a monthly expenditure basis that they’re going to have to justify those high limits to us,” Blankenship said.
In response, the county is limiting one-time transaction totals from no more than $5,000 to a $2,500 cap. Employees who wish to make larger purchases will need administration’s approval.
“The purpose behind the p-cards was to make small purchase, not large ones,” Blankenship said.
While department heads are already responsible over their own employees’ p-card purchases, to better manage the program county staff is also ensuring each head is actually implementing proper controls and oversight in each department. Blankenship estimated about $1 million had been spent on county p-cards last year and that he doesn’t think intentional criminal spending is occurring.
“We rarely see the types of flat out fraudulent abuse, where someone is buying personal items on a government p-card,” Blankenship said. “What we’re mainly concerned about is that we’ve got some folks that will go and purchase things on a p-card and exhaust a budget line item because there’s not adequate oversight; then, they bring a line-item change request to the supervisor after the money is spent, and try to move money from one line-item to another to try and cover that purchase.”
According to Councilman Josh Whitley, it’s better to have protocol in place as a precautionary measure. He said based on similar oversight the Berkeley County School Board enacted, resulting in employees’ p-card purchases dropping by a half-million dollars each month, he believes p-card changes can only benefit the county.
“Just making people think twice is a good thing,” Whitley said. “We do need to have a process to look into intentional abuse. …You do see elected officials across the state indicted on p-card abuse.”
“We don’t want to be one of those counties,” he said.
“No, we don’t,” Whitley said. “And if we are, we want the public to know it, and we want folks held accountable.”
Other council members also praised staff’s efforts to improve the p-card program.
“I support that we do have to have checks and balances,” said Councilman Jack Schurlknight.
Based on his concern about employees’ “free reign” with p-cards and whether each fully understands the budget process, Schurlknight also inquired if the former administration, under Sup. Bill Peagler, maintained any program policies and procedures. According to Blankenship, p-card statements under the former administration were reviewed monthly and internally audited, though now he’s hoping to make the approval process more technical.
Councilman Kevin Cox expressed an entirely different concern regarding vendor discounts with p-cards; he inquired why, if the county routinely utilizes certain vendors, the county isn’t receiving better discounts.
“Are we really negotiating with those companies to get the best price?” Cox said. “As we’re tracking down oversight on the p-cards, we also need to look at those who are getting the largest bite of the apple per purchases and make sure we’re getting the best deal from them.”
In agreement with Cox, Blankenship said working out better credits with repeat vendors is something the county will review.
“It needs to be looked at; we need to look at that whole purchasing dynamic,” Blankenship said.