Nickel and dimed

Some county department heads unhappy with purchase order policy

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If a tire goes flat on a county vehicle, the planning department needs a new ink cartridge or a sheriff deputy needs to develop a roll a film, the job isn't getting done -- at least not until a Moffat County commissioner approves it.

According to a new policy designed to track spending in all county departments, each and every expense literally down to the "nuts and bolts" must first pass the scrutiny of a completed purchase order.

"We're keeping a running total so we can know exactly where we are at the end of the year," said Commissioner Darryl Steele. "Maybe this will make people take a closer look at what they're buying."

While department heads have always been required to complete purchase orders for materials, many of those expenses received prior approval if they fell under a budget's line item report.

But commissioners recently have asked all departments to submit requests for all purchases as they try to grapple with the county's end-of-the year expenses.

Commissioners were charged earlier this year with chopping $600,000 from the general fund to balance the 2003 budget. Balancing the 2004 budget to reflect a $1.9 million general fund balance may require additional cuts ranging from $250,000 to more than $400,000 dependent on approval of a loan re-financing move for the money-losing Public Safety Center.

Keeping tabs on all dollars spent up to the year's end will show commissioners a picture of the 2003 budget outlook before heading into the new year, Steele said.

Yet the new system isn't effective for some departments, county officials said.

At the county's Road and Bridge Department gaining approval for mundane items such as oil filters and truck parts is holding up progress, said Administration Director Linda DeRose.

"This isn't working for us," she said. "We have guys standing around waiting before we can't get parts fixed. I understand (that commissioners) want to control costs but this has moved everything back."

The policy is having similar effects in the sheriff's department.

"We're tired of dealing with the purchase order fiasco," said Sheriff Buddy Grinstead. "They (commissioners) want us to get prior approval for our day-to-day operations. I'm chasing around purchase orders for a $3 or $5 purchase. I'm not too happy about it."

Grinstead said the new policy is inefficient, and he doesn't see the point, at least not in his department. If there are concerns about spending, penalize the offending department, not the whole county, Grinstead said.

He admits the commissioners are within their jurisdiction to approve his budget, but he strongly disagrees with attempts to track his spending within that budget, which he says he has never overspent.

"They're responsible for setting my budget. I'm responsible after that," Grinstead said.

In a curt letter to the commissioners, Grinstead wrote, "Please let us know who will be on call at night to bring a VISA card to the jail for a transport." The commissioners also had asked departments to turn in their credit cards or the accounts would be deactivated Wednesday.

Grinstead said sheriff's office's operations run around the clock every day of the year. When it takes as much as four hours to get a purchase order signed during the work week, he asks how can the purchase orders be practical, especially on off-hours and holidays.

"Where's the efficiency in county government," Grinstead said.

He has previously complained to the commissioners about county departments charging each other for services such as snow removal, which creates extra paperwork, requiring extra personnel to shuffle that paperwork. He raised similar concerns about the purchase order mandate.

Perhaps adding salt to the prisoners-for-profit wounds, Grinstead concluded his letter saying, "In an effort to save money and carry into next year, I will limit all transports to only Moffat County inmates and cancel all other transports for picking up state sentenced inmates and other "non-essential" revenue-making trips."

Grinstead said his letter was ignored by commissioners, who called him Wednesday threatening to cancel the sheriff's office's credit card accounts. This was particularly aggravating, Grinstead said, since he had addressed the credit card issue in the letter. He told commissioners in the letter that he would be sending officers out of town to transport inmates. The officers take credit cards with them in their "trip packets."

The matter was eventually resolved.

"Since they never replied to the letter, I had to track them down on Wednesday and get things worked out" -- yet another inefficiency, Grinstead said.

But it's unclear if the county's recent micro-management effort is in fact saving dollars, said Steele.

He estimates the board will pull the policy in a couple months, or until "we have as close a handle to balance the 2004 budget."

"At this point it's hard to tell if we're saving money," he said. "Our biggest cost is to process all these requests."

Indeed a thick logbook of purchase orders gets fatter by the day and keeps Administrative Assistant Tinneal Gerber passing paper between employees and commissioners.

Shelley Pankey from the accounting department said that so far the system hasn't greatly affected her workload.

"It may be more work in the long run but hopefully it will make us real aware of where we are in the budget process," she said. "(Getting a purchase order) may help employees make the decision if they really want to order something or not."

Though gaining commissioner approval for each county expense will expire in time, other potential cost-saving measures may occur next year.

That includes keeping supplies, such as office paper and pens under a centralized inventory system. Formerly each department head ordered materials individually, a situation that may have caused overlap, commissioners said.

Also open accounts with businesses have also been closed until further notice.

Steele stated one concern with the new policy as, "I don't want us to be stepping over a dollar to pick up a nickel."

Yet, he added, the county needed to watch its bottom line closely as the 2004 budget comes due Dec. 15.

"I do not like to micro-manage because in the long run it's not productive," Steele said. "It's not

that we don't trust employees or our departments, it's that we have to

have the figures available in the next two months."

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