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Mile 181

I may have lost an election, but I haven't lost interest.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Water Boarding

I understand why some officials may view undergoing an audit as a form of torture. Being criticized in public can be, at the very least, uncomfortable. But a thorough audit can be a valuable asset for developing better policies and procedures.

I am critical of some past audits. I have tried to make sure my criticism is based on facts, not on personalities. I don't intend to point a finger of blame. There certainly is shared responsibility between the Town Board and past and present Town Managers.

The point of an audit is not to find blame, but to uncover problems and suggest better ways. Before we ever heard of Pittard, Perry and Crone, the Town Board learned of the Tourism Board's practice of "rolling over" unspent allocation of funds from one budget year to the next and adding that amount to the following year's budget. That is a budget no-no. Long before we had a new auditor, the last board revealed that the administrative fee charged by the general fund to the water fund hadn't been recalculated in eight years. The bottom line is that the general fund had subsidized the water fund to the tune of about $150,000 over that eight year period. That doesn't even take into account the fact (discussed by the previous board in open session) that we weren't allowing for depreciation. We discussed the problem created by not handling the town's occupancy tax as a restricted fund and accounting for it "off books."

I think it would be irresponsible to criticize without offering some constructive suggestions. My main recommendation is to establish (or reestablish) a functioning water board. Ten of the twenty-three control and material deficiencies identified by the auditor are directly connected with administration of our water plant and associated billings and collections (including Bay River).

The town has convened a water board in the past. However, I am unable to find an ordinance establishing the board, spelling out its membership, terms of office and duties. We need such an ordinance.

The water board could advise the Town Board on policy issues, including procedures addressing each of the ten items from the audit. The board could address the question of where about a fourth of our water goes. It could also play an essential role interacting with the Rural Water Center when they come in February to assist us with our rate structure.

This is urgent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Audit Analysis

In response to popular demand, I decided to go ahead and post my analysis of the Town of Oriental's preliminary audit for FY 2008. This is decidedly unofficial and represents only my own views. These views are subject to refinement.


Control Deficiencies (pp 45-46)

1. Expenditures made by the general fund (FY 2007) exceeded authorized appropriations by $1,089 (tourism board) and $692 (environmental). Comment: This comment reflects three separate problem areas: (a) The excess tourism expenditure resulted from the tourism board taking unexpended budget from FY 2006 and "rolling it over" into 2007 without budgeting it. This has been going on for years and violates budgeting 101. Each FY must be budgeted separately; (b) The $692 was a result of late unanticipated billing from contractor installing effluent system. That contract was a can of worms. The error also reflected advice from our previous auditor that we don’t have to do line-by-line balancing of the budget, but only department by department. Under NC state rules, that is incorrect.

2. Petty cash: no adequate accountability and proper record keeping. Comment: the town did not even keep a petty cash ledger. This problem existed for many years. The ledger should have been maintained in our accounting system software. The problem no longer exists because the former petty cash system has been replaced by the use of town credit cards.

3. Invoices paid not defaced. Comment: we weren’t using a “Paid” stamp. Easily correctible.

4. Personnel files do not include the current year approved wages. Comment: should be easily correctible. Being addressed.

5. No schedule of accrued vacation hours by employee maintained. Comment: this function was available in our accounting software, but wasn’t being used.

6. Financial records need to be filed systematically. Comment: filing system is being revised.

7. Powell bill report for June 30, 2009 does not balance. Expenses understated by $3001.10. Comment: This error in the July 15 report was corrected in an August 26 amendment to the report.

8. Budget amendments made only at year end. Should be monitored continuously and amended as needed. Comment: I agree.

9. Town is billing approximately 63% of gallons pumped from wells monthly. Comment: In general, 12 – 15% waste is about normal. What we have is unlikely to be a billing problem. Water is leaking somewhere. Or it is being used through unrecorded and unread meters. This sounds like a problem with the physical plant, and it needs to be investigated. Good task for a reconstituted water board.

10. Late fees for water and sewer service not charged consistently. Comment: we have no late fees. What we do have is reconnect fees when water is disconnected due to non-payment or at customer request. It may be that some reconnect fees were forgiven due to disconnect being in error or other reason. In any event, reasons for forgiving reconnect fee should be recorded and approved. A water board should recommend policy to the Town Board.

11. Water deposits, sewer deposits and prepaid bills all recorded in same account. Comment: this seems to be a longstanding procedure. Practice needs to be reviewed by the water board.

12. The general fund charges the water fund $4,000 per month for administrative services. No documentation of how this is computed. Comment: I raised this issue during this year’s budget cycle. Turned out the amount was last calculated in 2001 and not recalculated for eight years, even though we had hired additional personnel, the water testing and other system requirements had grown, and much more public works time was spent on the water system than in 2001. There were other omissions, such as failure to estimate gasoline expense for meter reading. I calculated the general fund had subsidized the water fund about $150,000 between 2001 and 2008 and the annual charge should now be $82,000 instead of $48,000. We took steps in this budget cycle toward correcting this. Not mentioned in the list of control deficiencies, but another shortcoming in financial management of the water system is the failure to provide for system depreciation. Bottom line is that we are still losing money on water. The water board needs to review this before the Rural Water Association comes in February 2010 to assist in reviewing our rate structure.

Material Deficiencies (pp 46-47)

1. Segregation of duties is an on-going issue. Comment: I agree with auditor’s comment “this weakness is impractical to correct at this time due to a small staff.”

2. Bank reconciliations are performed by employees who are not independent of the recording duties and are not reviewed or approved by a second party. Comment: our only realistic possibility of meeting this requirement is to enlist the services of a member of the town board for reconciliation. I thought we were doing that.

3. Upon examining the collections drawer it was noted there was approximately $7,000 on hand with some checks 14 days old. Comment: the auditor fails to mention there was no lock on the drawer. Delaying deposits of cash and checks costs money (loss of interest) as well as presenting a security problem. There may have been a misunderstanding on the part of some office personnel that daily deposits would cost the town additional money. Our new manager discovered that was not so. Daily deposits are now being made. We should also take a look at our office safe. There should be a safe suitable for depositing money.

4. The town does not have a purchase order system in place. Comment: I will put this as politely as I can. For years, the town has submitted an annual report to the Local Government Commission claiming to have a purchase order system in place. It never did. Now it does.

5. No listing of journal entries for the year with supporting documentation. No approval process before journal entries made in the accounting software (Peachtree). Comment: a longstanding procedural shortcoming, now being corrected.

6. Town does not maintain a fixed asset ledger. Comment: Office personnel insist there is such a ledger. None has been found.

7. No computer security controls in place. Comment: About six months ago, the town manager recommended a system replacing our existing aged computers with new ones and incorporating a network server. This proposal would have addressed the security issue as well. No action was taken, except to replace the computer used for water billing when it died last month. This project should be pursued.

8. No approval process for utility adjustments. Comment: Most adjustments are made by Bay River. They are the approval authority. It may be that we should formalize approval of each request to Bay River. Adjustments to water bills sometimes result from misread meters. Policy for making and approving adjustments should be based on water board recommendations.

9. Water extensions not monitored effectively. Comment: this may not be accurate. On the other hand, it might be that this and other water system issues should be addressed by our Water Board. We have had a Water Board in the past, but we seem to have no ordinance establishing it, setting terms of reference for its duties, etc. The last time the board is recorded to have met is more than two years ago.

10. There is no reconciliation process for water payments collected. Comment: This may not be accurate. This could be another topic for review by the water committee.

11. There is no contract in place with Bay River. Comment: The town has been negotiating with Bay River to correct this omission for several months. As a separate issue not addressed by the auditor, the town needs to negotiate a number of additional inter local agreements or memoranda of understanding with the county, including the Sheriff’s Department and Animal Control.

Bottom Line:
The list of deficiencies is nothing to lose sleep over. The most important of them (except for the cash drawer) had already been identified and were being addressed by the Town Board before the audit began. Most importantly, I think, is the apparent need to reestablish an effective Water Board.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Audit III

The most heated exchange at last Tuesday's Town Board meeting concerned the draft audit report. It was noted that this year's report identifies 12 control deficiencies and 11 material deficiencies, whereas the previous auditor did not note a single deficiency. Has the town all of a sudden taken a nose dive in its procedures? Probably not. I believe our previous audits for the past several years were inadequate.

What do I know about audits? I was government contracts officer for two government contracting firms and Chief Financial Officer of a private equity firm with a government guarantee by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. I have represented my firms at audits by the Defense Contract Audit Agency. Been there. Done that.

In early 2008 in open session I questioned the statement in the 2007 audit report that the auditor's review "...would not necessarily identify all deficiencies in internal control that might be significant deficiencies or material weaknesses." The report went on to say that "...providing an opinion on compliance [with laws, regulations, contracts and grant agreements] was not an objective of our audit, and accordingly we do not express an opinion." I was told by one of the returning commissioners that "this isn't that kind of audit. If we want that kind of audit, we have to pay more." Well, this time we got "that kind of audit" and it cost less.

The previous audit was a whitewash. I am told that the previous auditor sat down with the then town manager and went over some "problem areas." I don't know what they were, because the list was never put on the public record or presented to the board. It should be the prerogative of the board to determine whether shortcomings in compliance require corrective action, not the unilateral determination by the town manager.

It's a good idea to look at any audit or other evaluation with a critical eye. I hope the new board will do that. Not every deficiency is worth correcting, especially in a town this size. But there is no excuse for not making every reasonable attempt to comply with state requirements. In many cases, correcting the auditor's findings is easy to do. In other cases, I believe the auditor is either incorrect or his statement misstates the real problem.

If anyone out there would find it useful, I would be glad to post my item-by-item analysis of the audit report.

The worst mistake would be to simply dismiss the findings of the auditor. This was a good audit. I think future audits by the same firm are likely to become even better, as the auditors achieve greater familiarity with the town's strengths and weaknesses.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December Meeting of Commissioners

Last night (Dec. 1, 2009), the outgoing commission cleaned up some remaining loose ends, County Commissioner Paul Delamar III swore in newly-elected commissioners, and the new commissioners began their own term.

There were four loose ends: outgoing commissioners approved November minutes of regular and special sessions; commissioners formally opened some previously closed minutes and agreed to the eventual release of minutes relating to South Avenue litigation; amended the town's fee schedule to include a parade permit fee of $10 (to cover the cost of insurance rider for the event); and the commissioners granted formal authority to the mayor to exercise day to day supervision of the town manager. Commissioner Styron asked why the board was opening closed minutes, which the town had never done in the past. I explained that the County Commissioners had begun the practice and I thought it appropriate for more open government. Mayor Sage observed that it removes some of the mystery surrounding government actions. The town's attorney explained that many of his clients do this and expressed the view that it should be done every six months or so.

After the new board assumed office, the most interesting exchange took place when Commissioner Warren Johnson drew attention to the audit report, recently received by the town in draft form. Commissioner Johnson found some of the findings disturbing. This will undoubtedly be addressed in more detail at the January meeting when the auditor will formally present the report to the board.