Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Jackson City Council learned during a Tuesday budget meeting that the city has very little oversight on numerous municipal transactions, which is costing the city revenue and could ultimately jeopardize some federal grants. The internal audit also revealed that some checks issued by the city are not clearing one year after issuance, and that the city is not accounting for its fixed assets.
"The city has had no up-to-date (asset) inventory since 2006," Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Valerie Nevels told the council. "…The city has no supervisory oversight, … (and) no separation of duty regarding fixed-asset management."
Nevels also pointed out that the city had serious holes in the Department of Finance, with the accountant II position empty and unfunded for the last two budget years. The short staffing resulted in delays, with the city failing to complete financial statements by a Dec. 31 deadline. Financial statements for 2006 were not completed until July 2007.
Several federal grants could be at risk because of the city's lax accounting methods, particularly Federal Transit Administration grants going to the city's public busing system and the Community Oriented Policing Services hiring grant.
"Failure to timely submit our single audit two years in a row could result in the freezing of all federal funds," Nevels warned, pointing out that the city has already been forced to re-pay some grants because personnel could not appropriately track the grant funds to make sure they were being put to their federally determined use. "…The belief in the city is that you can do what you want with (grant money), and that's why we've had to repay them," she said.
On top of critical holes in the Department of Finance, the city is also falling behind in information security, with the city's software and file-sharing network in need of updating, back-up filing and more experienced people to handle it.
"The software has no maintenance program and only one employee who has knowledge of the system," Nevels explained.
An issue that may directly affect city residents is the Finance Department's failure to track customer billing. Nevels said the city has no process for verifying whether services (electric or water) have been received by customers, or if the services are even necessary in some cases. The city also has no method to detect customer over-billing by checking their billing history.
Mayor Frank Melton said he had brought Nevels on to address the issue, but said "nobody seems to be listening (to her)."
City Council President Leslie McLemore suggested Melton immediately fill the accountant II position, and rebuild the city's contract compliance office.
"It seems to me that part of the answer obviously is to come up with personnel to carry out assignments," McLemore said, and suggested Melton deal with departmental indifference. "[S]ince nobody's listening, and they report to you, ... I would go ahead and make a decision about some of those people who are not listening."
Melton took offense at the suggestion, explaining that the people who were not listening were "sitting here with me on this dais," and blamed the council for not authorizing his proposed budget last year, which would have re-financed a greater portion of the city's debt, but dumped higher interest rates on the city for the next 10 years. The council had instead approved a smaller debt-refinancing plan last year.
"We brought to this council a budget in August last year that would've given the police and fire department a balanced budget, and this council turned it down. … Had we approved it … we'd be able to deal with some of the issues that we're bringing up."
"(Director of Administration Rick) Hill brought us a balanced budget, but it would have decimated parks and other divisions … and we were balancing it on the backs of the people who do the work of the city," McLemore argued.
Budget Chairman Marshand Crisler said department management ultimately fell to the executive branch.
"To sit here and say (Nevels) has given this info to the administration and directors and nobody's listening would fall on that side of the aisle," Crisler said. "… The executive officer says he wants it done, and it gets done. The council doesn't have authority over the directors."
As if to warn the council who, indeed, was the boss of the directors, Melton took that moment to caution council members to stop contacting department heads.
"I don't want y'all calling the department heads anymore. That's over. That ends today. … If (department heads) don't follow my directives, they will be terminated; and if they listen to you over me, they'll be terminated. … They'll take their instructions from me," Melton said.
Melton then began his characteristic storming-out-of-the-chamber move, although Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman asked him not to go.
"I beg you to at least let us continue," Tillman asked.
"I'll do that, but all eight of us have to be accountable. … You're going to have to share some of the accountability," Melton said, and then left anyway.
Why is the mayor always walking out on council meetings in a huff? Is that SOP elsewhere or are we "special" with our mayor? I'm curious if others in different cities have seen this kind of theatrical antics.