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Safety Harbor audit push leaves commission puzzled

Some city commissioners question the expense in the mayor's drive for an internal audit when previous external audits found no major problems.

By MEGAN SCOTT, Times Staff Writer
Published May 26, 2005

SAFETY HARBOR - External audits in this city have never turned up anything out of the ordinary.

So why is Mayor Pam Corbino pushing for an internal audit?

That's the question two other commissioners are asking. They smell a "fishing expedition."

At a meeting Monday, commissioners agreed to at least hear how much it would cost to audit its finance and leisure services departments.

But commissioners Kara Bauer and Andy Steingold still expressed concern about spending money on something that may not be necessary.

Steingold estimated an audit of the two departments would cost between $10,000 and $12,000. "There has been no allegation of fraud, no allegation of misappropriation of funds," he said. "The external audit has never shown any inappropriate handlings of money. I kind of feel like we're going on a fishing expedition."

If Corbino has a hunch that something is wrong, she is not saying.

She said she was surprised to learn that Safety Harbor had never done an internal audit before.

While an external audit provides a general overview of how finances are handled, an internal audit goes into more detail - counting every check, balancing each statement.

"It's not done to point the finger at someone," she said. "It's done to look at what policies are in place and to make sure we are doing everything we can do, or if we need to, do something better."

Paul Bedinghaus, a certified public accountant, agreed.

He said larger cities generally have internal auditors on staff. Smaller cities usually contract a firm to do the job. It is not all that unusual, he said.

"It's a way for the city to check up on itself to make sure it's got good procedures in place and is following good procedures in terms of accounting, reporting and spending money," he said.

But Bauer said she is not sure the city needs to spend money doing that.

She would rather the auditor tell the commission how to run the city better. She said some departments are too fat, others too lean.

"If we're going to do it, I would like us to look at efficiencies in each department," Bauer said. "I think there is some duplication of efforts. Almost every department has its own secretary. I'm not sure that's necessary.

"Finance is a very lean organization," she said. "For what they do, they do very well with few people. Maybe that's a place where you need somebody."

Steingold said Safety Harbor can always do things better. And he doubts an employee would get away with stealing money from the city.

"I'm somewhat resistant to going in and tearing up the books and breaking everything down," he said. "I don't know what we're looking for. If the mayor suspected fraud or misappropriation of funds, I'm all for it. I haven't heard that."

The auditor, Richard Cristini, could not be reached for comment. But he said Monday he should have a quote to the commission by next month. That quote would include cash handling and the efficiency of the departments.

Commissioners will then decide whether to spend the money. The city recently signed a two-year deal with the firm and pays them on a project-by-project basis.

Bedinghaus said the internal audit is a good thing.

"It says that the city is trying to raise their own standards," he said. "It doesn't mean there are any problems. They're just trying to upgrade their internal systems and have someone take a look at them, and say, "This is an area where you're deficient."'

Megan Scott can be reached at 445-4167 or mscott@sptimes.com

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