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A Times Editorial

Ongoing audit woes have consequences

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

Brooksville City Manager Richard Anderson and City Council members have spent almost 11/2 years assuring the public that budgeting and personnel problems in the finance department would be solved soon. They maintained that their inability to complete a mandatory audit on time for the past two fiscal years had no consequence other than confusion and frustration.

Now city taxpayers know that those assurances were, at best, uninformed. At worst, they were misleading.

And now the consequence is tangible. Because the city missed its deadline to complete its audit, taxpayers have missed an opportunity to save an additional half-million dollars in interest fees from the refinancing of decade-old utility bonds.

It is a problem that could have been avoided if the council and city manager had been astute enough to make correcting the problems a priority and then been persistent about following up on their plan of action.

Because that didn't happen, taxpayers were deprived not only of the potential $500,000 in savings on the bond interest, they also have shelled out extra money to Oliver & Co., the city's private auditor, which has been saddled with the responsibility of trying to sort out the mysteries that have come to embody the finance department.

The back-to-back-to-back turnover of finance officers and a failure to pass on information about the computer software used to consolidate the budget have received the lion's share of blame for the audits' delays. Those sorts of practical demons sometimes haunt every business operation, public or private.

But the key differences in Brooksville's circumstances are that ineptitude would not be tolerated for so long in the private sector, and when the seriousness of the situation was realized, someone would be forced to accept responsibility.

In City Hall, though, the response has been to blame one former finance director, make excuses for another, and for the council to shrug its collective shoulders, as if to say, "Gee, if only we'd known."

Anderson should be held responsible for creating an atmosphere among his staff that deadlines are made to be broken and that he will settle for inexact information. He also should not have assured the council and the public repeatedly that the missed deadlines were meaningless if he had not verified that statement.

But the council members share that blame. Anderson is in charge, but he does not operate in a vacuum. Oversight of the public's money is one of the council's primary responsibilities.

Even if the council members couldn't anticipate that an incomplete audit would preclude them from refinancing the bonds at the lowest interest rate, the repeated delays and excuses by Anderson and his staff should have troubled them sufficiently to demand it be corrected much sooner.

This ongoing problem with late audits lasted so long that it became self-perpetuating, and for that Brooksville residents are forced to question the council's capacity to be capable stewards of their taxes.

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