A stock image of credit cards from Pixabay.

ASHLAND — Ashland city officials charged over $277,000 to their city credit cards from February 2021 to December 2022, using them to buy an eclectic range of supplies, services, meals and products, according to copies of credit card records reviewed by Ashland Source.

The over 1,500 pages of records document each individual purchase a city credit card was used for and which department made the purchase.

Most of the time, the cards were used to purchase mundane supplies or services required for the city government’s daily function; items like dog waste bags for the park district, tools for the sewage waste division, cable adapters for the IT department.

The cards were also used to pay for employee meals and hotel stays, especially by the police division, whose employees frequently travel for training and cases.

For example, in November 2021, division employees traveled to Hilliard for training for newly promoted chiefs of police, according to Chief David Lay. The police division’s city credit card was used to pay for the group’s five-night stay in a hotel and for meals at restaurants in Hilliard like Carraba’s, The Old Bag of Nails Pub, and Figlio.

Some departments, like the Ashland Municipal Court, spend on meals more regularly; the court receives almost-monthly lunches from Buehler’s Fresh Foods for around $100.

There are only a few things that city credit cards cannot be used to buy: alcohol, adult entertainment or illegal items, Finance Director Larry Paxton said.

“You can’t go to an adult theater and pay for some stripper. It can’t be used for anything illegal. You can’t buy drugs or any of that stuff with it,” he said.

There was only one instance of a city employee using a credit card for un-permitted items in the records reviewed by Ashland Source.

On April 12, 2021, a fire division employee used a city credit card to purchase a bottle of Jose Cuervo Tequila and Jim Beam Apple Bourbon Whiskey for $23.52. The liquor was going to be used to make sauce for smoked pork to be served at a National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week lunch, according to the records.

The employee had to refund the liquor and pay for it out of their own pocket.

Paxton said he doesn’t remember that particular incident. But he said the case as described to him is a “perfect example” of how the finance department manages the city credit cards.

“We try to flag (these purchases) and make the director aware of it if he’s not aware of it. And then we try to curtail that as much as possible because (the rules are) pretty straightforward,” Paxton said.

Illicit purchases are not the only occasions when employees may have to use their own money for city credit-card purchases. 

Since the cards are used by a governmental entity, any purchases made with them should be exempt from sales tax. Sometimes, an employee will forget to ask the vendor for an exemption when checking out, so they are then required to ask for a refund in the amount of the sales tax. 

If the vendor doesn’t grant a refund, the employee will have to shell out their own money for the erroneous sales tax. 

“That kind of causes them a little heartburn once in a while. Because, (they’ll go) through McDonald’s or Wendy’s or something and they don’t care whether you’re a government agency … they charge tax on everything,” Paxton said.

City employees also have to use their own money if they fail to get a receipt for a credit card purchase. Mayor Matt Miller, who said he rarely uses the card, used it recently to pay for parking in Columbus while he was there for a meeting. 

But the parking meter did not give him a receipt, so the finance department “kicked” the purchase back to him, he said. He would have had to pay for it himself, but the finance department understood his dilemma and he did not have to pay, Miller said.

“Those folks in finance pretty much scrutinize everything,” Miller said.

The credit card records also offer a glimpse into what events the city had in a certain month and their cost.

For example, the credit card records from June 2022 show a flurry of purchases on the mayor’s city card for Ashland’s first Moonlight Movie Night; $465 for the license to show “Aladdin”, $768 on popcorn, $165 on glowsticks, $638 on candy, and more.

While the city cards are used to make the actual purchases, many of the city’s children-focused events like Moonlight Movie Night are funded by grants, Miller said.

These grants come in periodically from local organizations and philanthropists, who often don’t take much convincing, Miller added.

“We usually don’t have to ask too many people. I usually can make one phone call. People are like, ‘Hey, I’ll cover it, I’ll do it all. I think it’s great’,” he said.

In July 2021, the mayor’s card was used for a $1,284 purchase at a Chick-Fil-A in Strongsville. This was also an expense for a city event: The Big Splash Pool Party at Brookside Pool.

The Norma Foundation covered the cost of the chicken sandwiches and fries, which were handed out to children at the pool party.

“I want any child, whether they’re rich or poor, educated or uneducated to be able to attend and not have to worry about getting money to attend or having to buy the candy or having to buy the sandwiches and so on,” Miller said.

Who spends the most?

The city’s biggest spender is the fire division, which spent $82,890.76 from February 2021 through December 2022. Their most costly month was March 2022 when they charged almost $7,000 to the division and chief’s credit cards.

That month the fire division paid Clarion Events, the company that puts on an annual international firefighting conference, $3,897. Fire chief Rick Anderson stayed in a Columbus hotel for $275, the division re-upped its subscription to first responder software Active911 for $712, and it spent $107 on 12 large pizzas.

The city’s most expensive month was April 2021 when it spent $18,072.86. Almost half of that amount — $8,656.51 — came from the finance department. 

But while the finance department’s card was used, the expenses were actually for the fire division, who purchased an ice machine for $1,995, a slew of kitchen items for $1,945.23, and unspecified items from Home Depot for $2,351.69 that month, the records show.

How do the credit cards fit into the city’s spending?

Paxton said while the city’s credit card spending may seem like a lot to an average person, it’s actually only a small fraction of the city’s general fund of around $16 million.

“$138,000 to me sounds like a lot of money. I’m lucky if I got 20 bucks in my wallet,” Paxton said.

The city’s credit cards are also not the primary way the city purchases items. The “number one” method is via purchase orders that go through Paxton’s office, he said.

At one time, the city’s purchase order system was paper-based and centralized, meaning that the finance division had to write orders for every department.

“That was a nightmare,” Paxton said.

Now, it’s electronic, and each department submits their own requests that Paxton then reviews for approval. 

When he’s reviewing an order, he checks to make sure the purchase is from an established vendor and the money is coming from the appropriate city account. 

When Paxton has to make a purchase order for something, another employee reviews and approves it for him, he said.

“There’s a checks and balances on everything we do. Nobody in the department does everything,” he said.

The city’s finance department — and every public office in the state — is also subject to audits from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office that checks to make sure taxpayer money is being spent correctly.

When the auditor’s office finds that a public office has misspent or misused public funds, it can issue a “Finding for Recovery” to recoup the public funds. 

According to Paxton, the city of Ashland and the finance department have not had a finding issued against them for “a very long period of time.”

“A lot of people like to (say), ‘Well I got this award, or I got that award.’ I don’t really care. My award is I get to sleep at night knowing that we have done our job and we work for the taxpayers,” Paxton said.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *