Policies for spending in Wellington could change after a report released last week by the Palm Beach County Inspector General’s Office raised questions about whether several purchases served a public purpose.
“We will be taking the matter to the council,” Village Manager Paul Schofield told the Town-Crier Tuesday. “This was a learning experience for everyone.”
Last week, the Inspector General’s Office released a 27-page audit that took about eight months to complete. The audit looked at 763 charges to Wellington purchasing cards (called p-cards) during the first 10 months of 2011.
Of the $174,970 spent, the Inspector General’s Office raised concerns with about $28,597 that had been used for purchases that Inspector General Sheryl Steckler did not believe were for a public purpose.
“Overall, we found that the village has an adequate system of controls to monitor the use of p-cards,” Steckler’s report stated. “However, we did identify that some p-cardholders have purchased items that we do not believe have a clear public purpose.”
Examples of those included meals at restaurants or meals purchased for meetings or staff training; items for an employee birthday lunch, an employee retirement party and a holiday party; snacks and coffee for village staff; and flowers or food sent to employees’ families who had lost a loved one.
Schofield stressed that the audit does not accuse Wellington officials of any wrongdoing.
“They did not say we did anything illegal,” he said. “They just disagree with us. They are supposed to audit you on your own policies and processes. What they said in this case is that they don’t agree with those policies.”
Of the 11 recommendations in the report, Schofield said he agreed with most of them. He said that Wellington conducted its own audit, which finished in January, and that he has already implemented several changes.
“We put in some additional controls,” he said. “The audit also identifies $496 worth of spending that didn’t meet our policies. Of that, we caught $391 before we even walked in for an audit.”
However, Schofield disagreed with some of the findings.
“I disagree that we shouldn’t send flowers to a funeral of an employee’s family member,” he said. “I disagree that we shouldn’t buy water and coffee for our employees. But I’m perfectly willing to put that policy in front of my elected officials.”
As for lunch meetings, Schofield said it was often the only time he could meet with council members.
“If they feel that buying lunch for council members serves no public purpose, then let them make that decision,” he said. “That is a practice that has been going on since before incorporation.”
Schofield noted that some of the issue stems from common practices that hadn’t been looked at in several years.
“Some of these policies hadn’t been evaluated in two to four years; some of them hadn’t been evaluated in 15 to 16 years,” he said. “Clearly, what has come out of this, is that we need a review schedule for our policies.”
Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis, who said that he was the one who asked the inspector general to review the use of purchase cards, said he still has concerns with the findings.
“It concerns me that 43 percent of the items looked at did not have a clear public purpose,” he said. “Is it good public policy to buy a retirement watch on public money? Is it a good idea to pay for birthday parties and retirement parties? I don’t think so. It’s not my money. It’s residents’ money.”
Margolis said he asked the Inspector General’s Office to review the card purchases because he thought some of the policies needed review.
“It wasn’t that I wanted to play the ‘gotcha’ game,” he said. “It was something I thought might not have been illegal but was bad public policy. The only way to get it out as a resident was to go to [Steckler’s office] because I knew she had an auditing arm.”
Margolis said he was not opposed to Wellington providing coffee and water for its employees, providing staff with lunch during training or sending expressions of sympathy at the death of a family member. He said that he was concerned about whether it was official policy.
“It was a way to open our eyes,” he said. “There had never been an avenue before to bring this forward. If we had a policy in place that anyone who retires from the village gets a gift, I would be OK with that.”
But he was concerned with Wellington buying lunch for the Wellington Seniors Club.
“The village gives the Wellington Seniors Club $51,000 each year,” Margolis said. “Apparently, for a long time, we have been paying for their lunches and the board of directors’ lunches. That’s thousands of dollars.”
Another concern he had was that the audit said Wellington couldn’t provide receipts for 171 transactions.
Schofield noted, however, that the report shows Wellington provided other documentation, such as rosters or menus.
“When they requested additional documentation, we went back and got it,” he said.
But Margolis said he felt Wellington should have been able to provide the receipts.
“I’m coming from an environment where I had to provide specific receipts for my purchases,” he said. “It’s especially important for a government that prides itself on having won awards for its transparency.”
Margolis said he has asked for a workshop to address the issues with the council and residents.
“My goal is not only to review the report but review the reasons the report was made in the first place,” he said. “My understanding is that previous council members didn’t review credit card purchases, and they should have.”
Ultimately, Margolis said he thinks the audit was a positive experience for Wellington.
“We’re going to be a better municipality because of it,” Margolis said.
Schofield agreed that having an outside perspective was beneficial.
“As well as you think you do your job, sometimes having someone take an outside look at it is a good idea,” he said. “Having someone put a different perspective on it will make us better operationally. Not because we’ve done anything wrong, but sometimes it’s easy to continue to do the same thing. This has gotten us to realize that maybe we have to look more frequently at our policies.”
To find and review the entire 27-page report, visit www.pbcgov.com/oig.