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Food, fuel among top items employees charged
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Forsyth County News

Looking for a good place to eat in Cumming? Ask Matthew Ledbetter.

Since taking office in 2005, Forsyth County's tax commissioner has frequented many local favorites, including Rooster's Café, El Rio, the Foster House, Classics Neighborhood Pub and Sal's Place.

Over the past three years, in fact, county records show that Ledbetter and select staff members have charged tens of thousands of dollars to their county credit cards, on everything from meals and lodging to gas and gifts.

Several taxpayers, including Cumming resident Linda Cox, have expressed outrage over the department's spending. Though hotels and other travel expenses were costly, the biggest concern seems to center on the $14,300 spent on food.

"He apparently takes everyone and his brother to lunch," Cox said. "He's not taking the taxpayers to lunch, and we're footing the bill. That kind of angers me. In this day and age, who can afford to have that kind of thing going on?

"Everybody's paying $4.09 for a gallon of gas and he's using the county credit card to take his staff to lunch."

County policy permits using its credit cards to buy gas, food and lodging, but not computers, printing and postage, which employees in the tax commissioner's office also charged.

Some food costs were incurred during conventions, but the majority came in Forsyth County.

"A lot of these charges are for state auditors," Ledbetter said. "When the state comes and audits my books, we buy their lunch. When a salesman comes through that door, I buy his lunch ... because I don't want to be beholden."

Ledbetter, who was elected last week to another four-year term with 73 percent of the vote, said Friday lunches out were a regular occurrence when he first became tax commissioner.

"We used to have a Friday meeting with the managers because whenever we came into office, we lost a tremendous amount of experience," he said. "I was trying to learn this office."

Ledbetter said lunch was the only time all the managers were available, and the cost was justified because the meeting strictly involved county business.

Honeybaked Ham was the caterer of choice for Thanksgiving and Christmas at the tax commissioner's office. In 2006 purchases with the company in November and December were about $69 and $95, respectively. In 2007, Honeybaked Ham purchases rose to about $365 each holiday.

"We would go down to Honeybaked Ham over Thanksgiving," Ledbetter said. "I'll buy six or seven hams. Is it a bad thing for the tax commissioner's office to sit down and have a Thanksgiving or Christmas lunch together?"

Gas was another frequent credit card expense for Ledbetter and his staff. With nine fuel pump stations throughout the county available to certain staff members and county vehicles, there would appear to be no need to frequent commercial gas stations.

Ledbetter said while he and his staff did use the county pumps, they also visited gas stations to avoid wasting fuel returning to a county pump.

"If we're way off somewhere, say we're at Port Royale [a marina in northeastern Forsyth] ... we're not going to drive back to town to get fuel if we've got to have it," he said. "That doesn't make any sense at all."

Not unlike the price at the pump, gas charges have risen over the years, beginning with $269 in 2005. But by 2006, that cost was more than $2,600. In 2007, nearly $3,300 was spent on fuel.

In addition to buying gas, Ledbetter used the county's credit for monthly car washes, which ranged from $22 to more than $31 each.

Ledbetter could have gone for a quick $4 car wash, but said vacuuming and deep cleaning the car exudes a sense of professionalism.

A clean car, he said, shows the county "I appreciate what you're doing for me by allowing me to drive a county vehicle, and I'll show enough responsibility and appreciation to keep that car clean."

The car washes didn't start until April 2007.

In March 2007, a $305 charge was made to Atlanta Cellular service for a Blackberry Pearl, which Ledbetter said he otherwise would had to have waited two weeks for the finance department to order.

The e-mail capable cell phone would replace a similar one purchased in July 2006 for $359, which Ledbetter said is now at the bottom of Lake Lanier.

There were trips to Office Depot several times a month, ranging from $0.54 to $495. An Office Max purchase from October 2006 for $801 was made between two Office Depot purchases, one the day before and other the day after.

There were several times two Office Depot purchases were made in the same day.

Wal-Mart has received its share of county business, including one charge for $597 in November. Other purchases included those at Hallmark for staff birthdays, BJ's Wholesale Club for lollypops kept in the office and continuing education classes for staff.

"Customer service here is the best in the state of Georgia," Ledbetter said. "We've had 42 tax commissioners from across the state come and look at what we're doing because we've got such great reviews at the state. We believe customer service is No. 1."

Ledbetter said he is taking steps to rein in spending. His action comes as the county is preparing for a review of internal controls in all its departments.

"Now I have to make decisions over spending, that's just the nature of my job," he said. "But I want [residents] to know I make the best decisions I feel that will benefit taxpayers the most."