In response to the ongoing criminal investigation into the Buncombe County government, the county recently created and updated several policies. For example, the county now has a policy for eating at local restaurants.
The county already had a clear travel policy stipulating how food could be bought. However, eating locally was not covered under that or the credit card policy. Tax payers bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of meals. The new policy says meals cannot just be a matter of convenience.
With a swipe of a county credit card, former County Manager Wanda Greene often paid for meals around town. She held a county credit card from Oct. 2007 until Feb. 2011. At least 42 percent of all her purchases were at restaurants. Those purchases totaled more than $35,000.
Greene could approve her own purchases. However, Greene's replacement cannot.
"Those are steps we took directly in response to the past," County Manager Mandy Stone said.
Some of the meals taxpayers bought Greene were at the former downtown Asheville restaurant Vincenzo's. News 13 found 10 times when Greene paid for a meal there on nights commissioners also met. Vincenzo's was only open for dinner. Those 10, after-meeting, meals averaged $241.
Meal spending extended beyond Greene. Former Vice Chair Bill Stanley used his procurement to pay for thousands of dollars of food. One example was a Feb. 11, 2008, meal at Ruth's Chris for $156.50. News 13 met with Mr. Stanley at his home in March. He said he did not recall ever having a county credit card. However, county records show he used a card from Oct. 27, 2007, until July 17, 2012.
In fiscal year 2017, Finance Director Tim Flora used his county credit to pay for about $1,300 worth of meals.
"Yes, I have," Flora said.
You can see the full interview with Stone and Flora here:
As long as the meals were for county business the spending was allowed, because, until recently, the county had no rules for spending tax dollars in local restaurants. However, the credit card policy states when employees travel, they should not pay for food with their card. Instead, it says they should get petty cash or later reimbursed.
"There's no reason why an employee would need to purchase a meal on their purchase card in that regard," Flora said.
However, people did spend money on meals with their county credit cards while traveling. Greene used her card for many meals outside of the county. Most notably, she charged $765 on June 28, 2009, at Seattle's Space Needle Restaurant.
Stanley also paid for meals out of town. Those meals included a Dec. 3, 2008, meal in Raleigh at Second Empire Restaurant for $602.44.
Flora paid for at least two out-of-town meals on his county credit card. On Dec. 7, 2016, he charged $100.38 at the Hilton Lobby Lounge in New York. On May 5, 2017, he charged $81.85 at Earl's Glenarm, a Denver restaurant.
"Right, so that would be an exception, because that wasn't a meal for me. That was a meal to host others in the meetings. There are clearly exceptions," Flora said.
Now the county has a policy for eating out locally. It says meals should be necessary and must be cost effective. Greene's meals averaged about $70. The new policy says meals must be based on federal per diem rates, which means a lunch in Asheville should cost $12 per person.
"I can't control the past. I didn't sit in a seat where I had authority or oversight. I can only be responsible for the decisions I make and the policies I enact from July 1 on," Stone said.