Community

Georgetown finance leader spending on furniture 3 times more than plan

The city's finance department spent $28,012.66 on office furniture from 2005 through 2009, or about three times the amount originally budgeted, according to invoices and data collected through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now some Georgetown City Council members are saying the spending was excessive and irresponsible and are calling for a change in the city's procurement policy to lower the amount a department head can spend without the council's OK.

The finance director was allocated $9,500 for furniture from 2005 to 2009. In that time, Jessica Miller spent almost three times that amount, according to city records. Of that, about $13,000 went for four sets of new furniture used in Miller's office at various times during that period.

"To me, that is overlyexcessive to redecorate an office," said Councilman Paige Sawyer. "It does not look good for a finance director to be spending indiscriminately when she is the guardian of the taxpayer dollar. It is easy to spend somebody else's money."

Miller said the spending was necessary to replace furniture that was old and in bad condition. She said all purchases were made with the consent of former city administrators and the former mayor.

She also said she has been fiscally responsible. She purchased the new furniture while balancing the city's budget, which decreased from about $31 million in 2008-2009 fiscal year to about $30 million in 2009-2010.

Miller was placed on administrative leave in late February for two weeks. The city did not release a reason, saying it was a personnel matter. In an interview Thursday, Miller declined to talk about the reason for her leave.

Georgetown has had three administrators during the period Miller made the purchases, and Lynn Wood Wilson was mayor at the time. Wilson sought re-election in 2009, but lost in the primary.

Wilson called The Sun News' scrutiny of the furniture spending "politics" and said Miller deserved the new furnishings.

When Miller was hired in 2004, she said her desk was falling apart, and she purchased a new desk and office furniture. Miller said that before her arrival, officials had not replaced the furniture in city hall for a long time.

"All the furniture that was being purchased is being utilized and serves a very specific need. The furniture in the Information Technology director's office was literally falling apart. The furniture in the City Clerk's office was very old and in need of replacement," she wrote in a memo to current City Administrator Chris Eldridge, who was hired in 2009.

From 2005 to 2009 the finance department served as a sort of clearinghouse for city furniture, which found its way to various departments.

In 2005, Wilson "expressed his distaste for this style of furniture" and told Miller to buy herself another set, according to the memo.

"I just thought with her position and the kind of people she meets in her office, and the traffic through there, that she needed it," Wilson said. "I told her 'Why don't you get new furniture for your office?' I did not think it was excessive."

Miller sent her nearly new office suite to the information technology director and purchased a new set for herself at Wilson's request.

She spent $3,523.25 on a maple corner desk, asymmetrical desk, round conference table, two hutches with doors, tackboards, keyboard shelf, storage files, center drawer and keyboard shelf.

Asked why Miller should have to replace furniture that was a year old, Wilson said he did not remember the details.

"Why should this matter? This happened in 2005," Wilson said. "I do think this is ridiculous. It's political. ... [Miller] is getting a bum rap."

The 2005 city budget allocated $500 for furniture for her department, but she found $3,000 in other line item expenses to make up for the overage. Department heads have the authority to move line items in order to balance their budgets without getting City Council approval, Miller said.

She said did not get a chance to use her new $3,523.25 in furniture. Instead, it also went to the IT director. The IT director's nearly new set had been moved to the planning department.

Left without a desk, Miller said she worked in the conference room.

In November 2006, Miller spent $7,566.34 buying office furniture for her department. Of that, $4,390.54 was spent to replace furniture in her office. The expenses included $610.61 on a tufted, high-back executive chair; $580.78 on two burgundy leather brown cherry guest chairs; $1,219.92 on two bookcases; and $718.08 on a computer credenza.

Miller used the furniture until 2009, according to city documents. In early 2009, then-Mayor Wilson, decided the city clerk needed new furniture.

"She had a credenza that came from an old office," Wilson said of the city clerk's furniture.

In response, Miller shifted her $4,390.54 office set to the city clerk's office and bought new furniture for her own office. That furniture cost $4,942.48, which came out of the finance department's budget.

"With very few modifications, the exact same furniture was ordered to replace the furniture now being utilized by the city clerk, the additional charge was for an extra file cabinet to store multiple years of budget information. These changes were driven by [Wilson] and a need for some office reconfiguration due to network cabling issues," said a memo written by Miller.

Miller said there was oversight for her purchases. The city's purchasing officer must sign off on the purchase, and the city administrator gets a weekly update of expenses, Miller said.

The finance department's furniture costs were more than the combined purchases made by the city fire department, building and planning department and administration departments since 2005. The departments that received used furnishings from the finance department were also able to come in under budget on their own furniture expenses.

The City Council approves the budgets. Sawyer was on the council when each of these budgets was approved, but he said he only learned of the finance department's furniture purchases last year. He said he would now be scrutinizing each department's budget more closely.

"Especially departments heads who try to gloss over smaller items," Sawyer said. "Had it been explained, she would not have gotten the OK."

Sawyer also suggested reducing the amount department heads and the city administrator can approve on their own before getting City Council approval. Currently, the council is only required to approve expenditures over $25,000.

Wilson called Miller "one of the hardest working people" in city hall and said she had done great things for the city. In 2008, the city was awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting has been honored by the Government Finance Officers Association for its comprehensive annual financial report. The certificate is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting.

Councilman Brendon Barber said any criticism should be spread around.

"The council members voted to approve the budget," Barber said. "You have to keep in mind the city's mayor and the city administrator. She is not the only one to be held accountable. Her boss is the city administrator."

Barber said he would be scrutinizing next year's budget more closely and would support policy changes to the city's procurement policy.

Councilwoman Jeanette Ard, who was elected in November, also supports changes to the policy.

"I think it's excessive myself," Ard said. "Policy changes need to happen. The amount a department head can spend needs to be lower."

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