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A test program under which county employees could use a special credit card for county purchases under $500 will be started by Niagara County in the new year, Management and Budget Director Sharon Sacco said.

The County Legislature approved the pilot program at its final meeting of 1997. Mrs. Sacco said, "A purchasing card works like a credit card and allows a municipality to buy many small items and pay one bill."

Mrs. Sacco said the department that will test the cards has not yet been determined.

The cards are issued by banks and bear the Visa or MasterCard imprint. However, they are coded to be "commodity-specific," Mrs. Sacco said. They will bear an employee's name and be coded with a credit limit.

Thus, the employee given the card can only use it to buy certain goods related to his department. Legislator Richard C. Corica, D-Lockport, said, "The person who has it has the responsibility. They have to sign for (the purchases)." Mrs. Sacco said the department head will still have to review the list of purchases and the department's inventory to make sure the employees with the cards have not used them for personal items.

"You make people responsible for what they do," Mrs. Sacco said. "If a department head thinks an employee isn't responsible enough, that employee doesn't get one."

The card has two main advantages, she said. It should reduce paperwork and enable the county to save money on certain types of purchases.

At present, all purchases are recorded on separate pieces of paper -- a purchase order, a voucher, and an invoice for each. The purchasing card "eliminates a lot of unnecessary voucher work," Corica said.

Mrs. Sacco said a vendor may send the county a bill with "hundreds of invoices." With the card, the issuing bank sends a single credit card bill, and downloads the information on the invoices into the county's computers, she said.

Being able to write only one check for a department's routine monthly supply purchases will also be a time- and labor-saver. "We write checks for $1.69 and $2.80 all the time," said Mrs. Sacco. She said the purchasing card will enable county employees simply to walk into a retail store and buy something not expensive enough to be put up for competitive bidding, which now has to be bought off a state contract.

The state contracts for large quantities of items frequently bought by localities. This is supposed to save money, but Mrs. Sacco said it doesn't always work that way.

"The county pays top dollar because all that's on state contract is the very, very best stuff," Mrs. Sacco said. She said the state price can be beaten with a different but adequate model of a particular item.

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