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Accountants: City financial books in a mess

NATCHEZ — Four months into the job, the two accountants in the city clerk’s office say they are still struggling to find structure in the city’s accounting system.

Accountants Nancy Hydrick and Christine Brinegar were hired last November to get the city’s books back in order. But Hydrick and Brinegar reported to the Natchez Board of Aldermen at its Tuesday finance meeting that the cleanup process has not even started.

“I have a lot of daily work that has kind of taken over,” Hydrick said. “I’m not doing what I need to be doing.”

Hydrick said she has been entering data into the city’s Springbrook accounting software and reconciling the balances of the city’s accounts in the software in an effort to close out the books from last fiscal year.

Brinegar said the reconciliation of discrepancies between numbers in the city’s books and in the accounting software has been difficult.

“Some of them were so messed up, I had to back into a number just to get started,” she said.

Getting accurate tax forms for city employees and contractors has also consumed a great deal of the accountants’ time, Brinegar said.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith questioned why city employees received three sets of W-2 tax forms.

Brinegar said she instructed the clerk’s staff not to send out the first set of W2s because she discovered they were inaccurate, but the forms were sent out anyway

“That never should have happened,” she said.

The second set, Brinegar said, was incorrect because of a coding error, and the city was not properly withholding for Federal Insurance Contributions Act and Medicare taxes.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard asked Hydrick and Brinegar if hiring temporary staff in the clerk’s office would help them speed along the process.

“The consequences of these things are real,” Dillard said. “We’re now approaching halfway through our fiscal year, and the budget we’re operating with is not reliable.”

Hydrick said she is not confident with the budget because she has not had time to review it.

The accountants, she said, are working to close out the books from last fiscal year in order complete the city’s audit by the state’s June 30 deadline.

Hydrick said extra help in the office is needed. Either new temporary staff must be hired or current staff needs to be reassigned to enter data into the new computer system, she said.

The problem, the accountants said, was that staff previously entered data into the system after having done most of the number crunching manually.

“This is a sophisticated system that will do everything for you,” Brinegar said.

The city purchased the software nearly a year and a half ago for approximately $130,000-$140,000.

Brinegar said the accounting software system is only partially up and running.

“I don’t know if I even feel comfortable saying its halfway up and running,” she said.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis expressed frustration that the software has not being properly used. The city, she said, paid for the city clerk’s employees to be trained to use it.

Information Technology Director Eric Junkin has been a big help assisting the accountants with the software, Brinegar said.

“I cannot do my job without Eric,” she said.

The problem, Junkin said, is that the data that is going into the accounting software is being sent to City Hall, where the data is put in the system. He said the data should instead be entered by department heads in their respective departments.

Brinegar also said the city needed to outline proper procedures for the software’s use in order to utilize it consistently across the various city departments.

“That will cut down on mistakes,” she said.

Both accountants said the clerk’s office’s staff needs better, more clearly outlined job descriptions.

“Certain people need to do certain things,” Hydrick said. “If they are doing payroll, they need to just do payroll.”

Additionally, Junkin said the city is going to have to update other types of software in its inventory to comply with new federal requirements.

The total upgrade will cost the city approximately $110,000-$120,000, Junkin said. The software needed first, he said, will cost the city $70,000-$80,000, the amount remaining in the IT budget.

Junkin said the software vendor has agreed to allow the city to pay half of the cost this fiscal year and half next year.

In other news from the meeting:

-The board postponed any action during its regular meeting regarding allocating funds for a recreation director’s salary. The board agreed it needed to meet with the county board of supervisors, which recently voted to contribute $15,000 toward the salary for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Supervisor David Carter tentatively scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m. Feb. 21 Tuesday afternoon pending the aldermen are available.

-The board voted to have Community Development Director James Johnston and City Attorney Hyde Carby draft a personnel policy regarding the city’s Healthy You program. The program provides health screenings and other benefits and is included in the city’s employee benefit package.

The program requires an annual physical, and Johnston and Brown suggested the board make the wellness checkup a requirement of employment by including it in the personnel policy.

Johnston suggested employees be given a full sick day to complete the checkup and be docked eight hours of sick leave if they do not get the physical.

-The board agreed to provide space on the bluff for an Earth Day celebration on April 20 hosted by Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi at the request of the Natchez chapter’s chairperson, Mitzi Callon.

-The board authorized Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District Planner Allen Laird to apply for funding from the Community Block Development Grant program to finish paving Daisy Street.