OREGON – During 2013, four Ogle County departments used their credit cards to buy office supplies, lunches for volunteers, gasoline and travel expenses, among other purchases.
Sauk Valley Media received the credit card statements after a Freedom of Information Act request was sent to four departments: health, highway, probation and solid waste management.
In December, Sauk Valley Media reported on the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department’s credit card spending, which included lunch training sessions at local restaurants several times a week and work clothes for Sheriff Michael Harn, including Under Armour polo shirts and Lucky Brand jeans.
The reporting also discovered alterations made to credit card statements and personal purchases made on the Sheriff’s Department credit cards, which the sheriff reimbursed directly to the credit card company.
At the time, those purchases did not violate county policy.
The majority of the purchases made for the health department were for office supplies. Making those purchases online means an employee doesn’t have to drive to a store, and the supplies can usually be shipped to the department the next day, said Doreen O’Brien, head of the health department.
The probation department has five credit cards, with four connected to Focus House, the county’s youth shelter-care facility, and one for Director of Court Services Greg Martin.
The credit cards are used for a variety of expenses.
Some of the expenses related to Focus House include medical supplies, taking the adolescents to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and trips to local movie theaters, which, Martin said, were during activity nights for good behavior.
Probation officers often get continuing education courses paid for by other organizations, Martin said, but part of that agreement is that the department pay for the hotel accommodations. The department uses credit cards for those charges, he said.
‘Expenses are business-related only’
Curtis Cook, the Ogle County engineer and head of the highway department, got his department a credit card about 10 years ago, he said, when making purchases online became common. The department has one card, he said, and it’s in his name.
“The expenses are business-related only – period. Very simple,” he said. “If anybody here needs to order something online, they have come to me to place that order. Otherwise, the only other thing it’s used for is travel expenses.”
Ogle County didn’t have a countywide credit card policy until last year, bringing it in step with Lee County. Whiteside County doesn’t have such a policy.
For the highway department, nothing changed with the new policy in terms of purchases, Cook said, but the department now includes an additional sheet when it submits its credit card bills to its county committee.
That sheet lists the date, company, explanation of purchase, location of purchase, budgeted line item paying for the purchase, and total cost. It’s the same sheet the solid waste management department had been using before the countywide policy, said Stephen Rypkema, the department’s director.
“I’ve always believed that if we’re using a credit card, it has to be totally transparent,” he said. “And the public has a right to know what they’re used for.”
Before working in the solid waste management department, Rypkema worked in the health department, which is where he likely got the idea for the sheet.
“I really do believe that there are legitimate uses for the cards as long as they’re used in a transparent way,” Rypkema said. “And I think these sheets help.”
‘There’s more oversight’
Among the purchases listed on the credit card bills for the solid waste management department were hotels for a conference of the Illinois Counties Solid Waste Management Association, food and shirts for volunteers, and books about recycling and environmental issues donated to county schools and libraries.
Because the department doesn’t pay volunteers to work Earth Day events or on recycling events for electronics and Christmas trees, Rypkema offers them a T-shirt and sometimes buys them lunch, he said.
Rypkema and O’Brien said they were involved in the discussion with County Board members Dick Petrizzo and John O’Brien when putting together the countywide policy.
And since that credit card policy was put in place, Martin said he’s had more conversations about credit card charges.
“I do think that there’s more oversight, for lack of a better word,” Martin said. “At least with my committee.”