The Credit-card Flap 

The Credit-card Flap

Considering the wide variety of contentious issues that have occupied Shelby County government in recent years, we should have been ready for the one that surfaced big-time last week, as one county administration yielded to another. But, we confess, we weren't. The issue? County-issued credit cards and their potential for misuse by the holder.

New county mayor A C Wharton has announced that he will call in all extant cards held by employees of county government; whether to revoke them altogether or institute new rules for their use remains to be seen. There is little doubt that if they are to be used in the future, they will -- and should -- be subjected to stricter regulations and safeguards than have heretofore been applied.

The first inkling that something was amiss was the revelation, during the recent county political campaign, of credit-card abuse in the office of the Juvenile Court Clerk. Although the incumbent clerk, Shep Wilbun, has not been demonstrated to be a transgressor, one of his erstwhile employees seems definitely to have been, and resultant questions about Wilbun's conduct of the office undoubtedly contributed to the margin of his defeat in the election.

During the course of the controversy over the clerk's office, Wilbun made the seemingly intemperate accusation that a double standard was being applied and that he, as a black Democrat, had been unfairly targeted. The post-election news that Tom Jones, a veteran aide to Republican mayor Jim Rout, had used a county-issued card to pay for personal expenses in the tens of thousands of dollars may have redeemed Wilbun's complaint somewhat -- especially when the former mayor himself seems to have been a bit lax in his use of a county card.

The publicity generated by the separate credit-card incidents has provided the hardcore opponents of government -- those who equate taxation with socialism and public office with parasitism -- all the ammunition they needed for another round of bombast. We don't identify with the bashers, but we don't sympathize with the abusers -- actual or suspected -- either.

It is axiomatic that credit cards came to be in the private sector only secondarily as a convenience to consumers. Their primary purpose, now as then, is to encourage consumption. Anyone who has ever used a credit card -- and that surely includes most of us -- knows how easy it is to whip out a card and pay for something under the illusion that no money is actually leaving the wallet. Credit cards can create the momentary illusion that something is free, when, in fact, that very something will end up costing even more in the long run than if purchased with cash. (Needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this, as Horatio said to Hamlet.)

Still, the cards do provide a convenience, and there are compelling reasons why they can be of use in the conduct of public business. So long as the traps inherent in their use are made inescapably clear to the user -- by appropriate sanctions -- we are not prepared to argue for their abolition altogether. Mayor Wharton has made the right first move, and we presume he will not be stampeded into over-reacting on the matter.


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