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NBC Montana investigation compares city credit card usage

NBC Montana investigation compares...

MISSOULA, Mont. - We continue our NBC Montana investigation into the way Montana cities spend your money.

We’ve already told you how the city of Missoula spends an average of about $30,000 a month on credit card bills.

Our public information request turned up Keen sandals at $99.99, Levi 501 jeans at $47.99 and $46 worth of Skullcandy earbuds.

Our investigation led us to this question -- how does Missoula’s spending compare to Bozeman, Billings and Kalispell?  The answer might surprise you.

One Missoula resident told us, “I would want all the receipts for every month.”

The receipts total an approximate $300,000 a year for Missoula.  We checked four months of Missoula’s credit card statements.

Mark Rothman is a small businessman. “I would want to know how it is being spent,” he told us.

We totaled an average of about $1,000 a month in Missoula spent on food, meals, tips, water, coffee and ice.  Then there is the $21,000 spent over four months for travel.  Destinations on the statements include British Columbia, California and Nevada for an average of more than $5,900 a month. 

Included in that is a charge for $2,200 in travel for the mayor.  We asked to talk to John Engen about credit card use.  He declined an interview. 

Through a series of emails between our newsroom and the city that date back to last fall, we know 46 of the city’s nearly 500 employees have a city credit card.  The limit on all but two is $5,000.  The other two are $6,000 and $10,000, for a total credit card limit for the city of Missoula at $236,000.

We compared that to Kalispell.  Turns out the $5,000 credit limit is the same.  But when it comes to credit cards we found out there are just 10, and six of them are held by the city treasurer for check-out.

Three months of Kalispell statements total over $37,000, an average of about $12,000 a month. 

Click here to view three months of Kalispell credit card statements.

We found just two meals totaling under $100.  Then we added up travel to places like Helena, Great Falls and Florida.  The total stands at more than $11,000, an average of $3,700 a month.  The city manager tells us every purchase has to have a filled out explanation on a form that is approved by a supervisor.

Billings does about $240,000 a month on credit cards, almost eight times the amount Missoula spends.  We called their finance department to find out why.  A worker there told us it is “more efficient” and “easier to track.”

The city administrator explained 214 of the city’s more than 900 employees carry a credit card.  We found a two-month total of $1,600 spent in restaurants, close $10,000 a month on airline tickets and hotels.  On the list of training locations -- New Orleans and Idaho Falls. 

But here’s something Billings does differently.  We’re told the city can restrict type of purchases on individual cards.  That means not everyone can buy just anything.

Our investigation led us to Bozeman with 400 city employees, 47 of whom carry credit cards.  Who gets one?

City Manager Chris Kukulski explained, “Basically it is based on whether they are supervisors or managers or run a program for the city.”

He gave us four months of statements totaling over $133,000, an average of more than $28,000 a month.  That’s about the same as Missoula.  Page by page, we broke down the bills.  Employees charged $3,000 in food.  That’s about $825 a month in lunch and dinner meetings.

Bozeman workers racked up over $23,000 in travel to trainings in Texas, Montana and Nevada.  That’s an average of $5,900 a month.

Kukulski told us, “Anybody who is authorizing a purchase needs to be prepared to stand in front of the City Commission on a Monday night with the cameras rolling and answer a question pertaining to why the decision was made to make that purchase.”

By the time we finished poring over thousands of credit card transactions from four Montana cities we found the bottom line. Kalispell, the smallest city we checked, spends by far the least on food and travel.  While Billings spends the most on travel, it also has twice as many employees as Missoula and Bozeman.  When you compare those two cities head to head, Bozeman spends more on travel and Missoula more on food.

So what policies dictate how employees can use city credit cards?  We’ll check that Tuesday on the News at 10.


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