Small ball


Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins has banned the use of city credit cards by his administration, claiming that purchases made with plastic by his predecessor’s office were excessive. That edict seems a mostly symbolic, even petty, act that will have little practical impact.

A review of credit card statements and receipts released by the Collins administration to The Blade showed that former mayor Mike Bell and two of his deputy mayors put thousands of taxpayer dollars’ worth of food, drinks, gasoline, and flowers on charge cards.

Mr. Collins stopped short of calling these charges overt misuses of city-issued credit cards, but characterized the purchases as “plastic on steroids.” The mayor says such spending makes him uncomfortable, and that he will pay his own way when he needs to send flowers or buy gasoline.

Yet Mayor Collins’ policy may do a disservice to those who work with him. There will be instances when city employees will need to travel or make official purchases, and not everyone has the financial flexibility to pay up front and wait for reimbursement. A more appropriate response would have been for the mayor to vow tougher oversight and enforcement of spending policies.

Internal audits have rooted out credit-card waste, abuse, and fraud by city officials around the country. Toledoans need only look up the road to Detroit — where disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick racked up $200,000 on his city-issued credit card for champagne and spa visits, among other luxuries — to see how far some officials will go to cheat taxpayers.

But instead of promising closer scrutiny, Mayor Collins’ sweeping declaration to end all credit-card use makes him appear either reluctant or unable to single out, and rein in, corrupt employees.

City officials — and other business people — often must spend money to do their jobs. There is nothing wrong with such spending as long as it is not lavish, and as long as proper receipts and documentation are provided.

Mr. Collins promises transparency in city spending. He could have done what some other municipal governments do, and post the city’s monthly credit-card spending online for all to see.

The mayor could have prohibited personal spending on city-issued credit cards. He could have established punitive policies for employees who broke the rules: Many cities subject employee cardholders to dismissal and possible legal action for fraudulent use.

Such a policy would have been appropriate for a former assistant to Mayor Bell who in 2011 placed three monthly charges totaling $687.21 on a city credit card. Those purchases were identified as personal car payments. Officials said the employee accidentally set up an automatic billing process, using the city credit card instead of her own.

The story doesn’t pass the smell test — why was another monthly payment in the sequence not deducted if the debits were automatic? But the employee was not disciplined for the charges. She eventually reimbursed the city.

Mayor Collins missed an opportunity to show that his administration will not tolerate such lapses. Instead, his overreaching decision to ban the plastic treats honest and potentially misbehaving city employees in the same way.

Taking potshots at your predecessor is a time-honored tradition among Toledo mayors. Yet there are far larger issues of city spending that Mayor Collins needs to address on his own watch.