City Beat

Overall city credit card usage flat despite large decrease in accounts

One year after Sacramento City Hall was struck by a scandal involving illegal credit card purchases made by a former mayoral aide, the number of city workers with credit cards has been slashed nearly in half.

But total credit card spending by city workers has dipped only slightly since last year, records show. That’s due largely to the fact that many of the cards taken away were rarely being used, officials said.

Through the first nine months of 2012, employees had charged $1.24 million to their cards. For the first nine months of this year, that bill stood at $1.19 million.

City officials said the spending will likely decrease further as more employees move away from using credit cards to purchase supplies and begin taking advantage of long-term purchasing agreements the city has with large vendors. Those purchasing agreements often allow goods to be acquired at discounts and are designed to save the city money, officials said.

City Manager John Shirey said this week that 168 workers now have city-issued credit cards, which are repaid with public money. That’s down from 292 in May of last year – a decrease of 43 percent. Shirey described the new total as “a fairly stable number” and said he doesn’t think it will get much lower.

“I think we’ve made great strides in reducing the number of cards,” Shirey said. “And in the process, we’ve reduced the city’s exposure that there will be issues with those cards.”

Scrutiny of the city’s credit card usage began last year after The Sacramento Bee revealed that Lisa Serna-Mayorga, a former City Council operations manager appointed by Mayor Kevin Johnson, had made $19,000 in personal charges to her city-issued credit card. The charges included two family trips to Disneyland, meals at restaurants, groceries and more than 1,000 iPad downloads.

Serna-Mayorga, the daughter of former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr. and sister to Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, pleaded guilty in March to felony misappropriation of public funds and was sentenced to five years probation and 270 days in jail. She also agreed to pay back the lost city funds.

Shirey said the city has since conducted “surprise audits” of credit card activity and that no questionable purchases have been discovered.

Records released last year showed a citywide total of roughly $9.6 million in spending on 48,000 credit card purchases between 2007 and 2012. At the time, Shirey said the city would “tighten” its use of credit cards.

Shirey said the largest reduction in credit card accounts was in the Department of Parks and Recreation, which had accounted for more than 21,000 purchases for a total of $3.4 million between 2007 and 2012.

“The process (for reducing the number of cards) was fairly simple,” Shirey said. “We just made a review of everyone holding a card and asked ourselves the simple question: Does that person need a card? In many instances, the answer was ‘no.’”

Shirey said there were cases in which multiple employees in a single unit all had cards, when “purchases easily could have been handled by one person.”

Councilman Steve Cohn, who chaired a City Council audit committee when credit card activity was the focus of an internal city audit, said “the trend is good and we’ll have to keep monitoring it.”

“The goal wasn’t to not use credit cards, but to make sure they are only used to serve legitimate purposes and that there’s clear accountability,” he said. “It’s something we’ll always have to be on top of.”