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Associated Press

BOZEMAN (AP) - The new Gallatin County auditor says taxpayers have been picking up the bills for county employee gifts.

Auditor Jennifer Blossom said the county has been getting billed for flowers, doughnuts, gift certificates, food and other gifts.

"It was pretty eye-opening to come in here and see this kind of stuff," Blossom said. "We need to stop the waste of taxpayers' money."

The county's three commissioners said they had no idea department heads were approving such expenses, and said they would draft a new policy defining acceptable spending of taxpayer money.

But the county's former auditor, Joyce Schmidt, said employees wouldn't have made the purchases if the commissioners hadn't sent the message that it was OK.

In fact, commissioners' bills from last year turned up more than a dozen charges to a local grocery store, commission assistant Glenda Howze said.

Blossom said that when she first noticed some of the charges she began examining past years' accounts. She found many charges from the 911 dispatch center, including bills for flowers, doughnuts and $90 in gift certificates to a Belgrade bar.

She said other departments had bills for food that ran over $100 or billed Christmas gifts for employees.

Blossom said she hasn't tallied all of the charges but has found thousands of dollars worth so far.

Some of the problems showed up right in the auditors' office.

Blossom said Schmidt charged more than $1,100 in professional organization memberships and subscriptions to the public, including her dues to the National Association for Female Executives.

County 911 Director Ben Hess defended some of the expenses, saying he was accustomed to buying little gifts for employees from his years in the private sector.

He said his department's questioned bills included flowers sent to a staff member whose mother had died.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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