City Data Shows 56,000 Charge Card Purchases Made by San Diego Employees

Movie passes, karaoke machines and driftwood were just a few of the transactions employees have expensed on city credit cards, racking up more than $16 million in purchases since 2015, according to city data.

by Lauryn Schroeder / August 23, 2017

(TNS) — Movie tickets, greens fees, a portable karaoke machine and a parking ticket.

Those are just a few of the 56,000 transactions San Diego city employees have expensed on city credit cards, racking up more than $16 million in purchases since 2015, according to city data.

Most of the transactions are routine, such as shipping, training, subscriptions or gas for city vehicles. But U-T Watchdog reviewed the data and found plenty of colorful or questionable expenses as well. A Zumba video for $34.24 at Walmart. Maracas for the Environmental Services Department for $3,100.

The procurement cards, more commonly known as p-cards, are similar to what private companies give to employees to pay for work-related expenses such as fees, travel, office supplies and equipment.

According to city documents, department leaders decide which employees are issued a p-card and those people are given authority to approve purchases for goods and services required by the department. Data show at least 739 employees from more than 100 divisions have an active p-card account.

U-T Watchdog has asked city officials to explain or justify the purchase of dozens of unusual expenses spotted in the database. Those include:

  • $4,200 for 20 pieces of decorative driftwood, purchased by Public Utilities in August 2015
  • A putting green and putters, purchased by the Office of the Comptroller, costing $1,550
  • $1,150 on “prom items” and shipping, purchased by Public Utilities in September 2015
  • $9,700 to charter a plane for the San Diego Police Department in August 2016
  • $70.22 in movie tickets on three separate occasions
  • Nearly $2,000 worth of “athletic walking shoes,” purchased by the Office of the City Treasurer
  • Nail polish kits, nail files, hair product samples, and $47.60 for “handcuff charms,” purchased by the Environmental Services department
  • $204 for “stress balls for annual department meeting,” purchased by Park and Recreation in September 2015
  • $1,100 for nine, framed motivational posters, purchased by Public Utilities in June 2015
  • Guitars, guitar straps, tuners, a portable karaoke machine and portable speaker for Environmental Services
  • Golf course range passes for $200

The spending came amid ongoing budget problems for the city, which officials attribute to a spike in the city’s pension payment, from $191 million last year to $236 million this year.

As a result, Mayor Kevin Faulconer's budget unveiled this past spring cut library staff, tree trimming and parks and pool maintenance. It also cut funding for paving of city parking lots and neighborhood code compliance officers.

Officials said the cuts were needed to close a projected $81 million shortfall in a $1.4 billion operating budget.

Katie Keach, director of the city’s communications department, said it’s important to keep p-card usage in perspective, as the city spends billions of dollars on goods and services.

U-T Watchdog used the item descriptions in each transaction to categorize purchases. Keach said city officials have access to more detailed information from receipts and invoices attached to each transaction. This is used to assess the appropriateness of each expense.

Keach has not yet fulfilled several requests, over a two-week period, for explanations or justification for the expenses highlighted in this report.

The Mayor’s Office responded separately to questions about its own expenses. For instance, the Watchdog inquired about a fluctuating monthly cost for satellite television in the mayor’s vehicle, which is currently being funded by the police department.

San Diego Police Department spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl said it’s department policy to equip certain police command vehicles with satellite TV for emergency purposes.

“The mayor’s vehicle is considered a command vehicle,” Wahl said by email. “Fortunately, there has not been an emergency that has required the mayor to use the satellite TV.”

Wahl said the fluctuating costs were caused by an enhanced level of service to the monthly package without the department’s consent. DirecTV has agreed to reimburse the city for overcharges of about $525 over a three-year period.

According to p-card transactions, cardholders from the police department pay an average of $97 a month to DirecTV.

“There have never been any purchases beyond the basic monthly package,” Wahl said.

Data show the mayor’s office paid $297 for “table cloth for budget signing” and $304 for “38-inch exceptional ribbon-cutting scissors.”

Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office, said the tablecloth has been used for other events besides the budget signing ceremony and will continue to be used in the forseeable future. The scissors are used for ribbon-cutting and other ceremonial events.

Ron Vazquez, the city's Web services manager, used his p-card to purchase and renew the domain name “,” which currently redirects to the mayor’s page on the city’s website,

Gustafson said it’s common for organizations to purchase domain names to prevent someone else from buying the sites and using them against the organization, or tricking others into believing that it’s an official website.

The Watchdog’s review found that about 18 percent of the total amount spent on p-cards from January 2015 to June of this year went toward travel.

Cardholders spent nearly $1.2 million on hotels, averaging $400 per transaction; about $961,500 on flights; and $54,000 on rental cars and train tickets.

Another 20 percent, some $3.2 million, went toward fees, such as training or seminars, event registrations, membership fees and subscriptions. The city spent about $80,000 on postage and shipping.

Data show cardholders spent the most on retail, about 60 percent of the $16 million. Retail expenses include clothing and accessories, furniture, tools, hardware, electronic supplies and event and office equipment.

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.