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Official: Audit is ‘wake up call’ for city

NATCHEZ — When auditors sat down to take a look at the City of Natchez’s financial books, they found much work needed to be redone.

“The only way we could get comfortable with the cash balances was to go back and do the test ourselves,” said accountant Deanne Tanksley with the Gillon Group, who worked on the city’s audit for 2012. “I did the general fund myself because I wanted to make sure we had everything in there that needed to be addressed.”

Tanksley made her statements to the Natchez Board of Aldermen at a work session before Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

The need for the careful examination of the city’s fund balances were due in part to the fact that the city’s month-to-month bank reconciliations were not always done in a timely manner, and sometimes weren’t done at all, Tanksley said.

“In some cases, that meant doing (the reconciliations) for the whole year start to finish,” she said. “At the end of that, there were adjustments that were made for items that had not been recorded in the general ledger.”

To keep this from happening again, the auditors are recommending the city adopt a policy that requires all departments to have their bank reconciliations completed by the 10th of the month and submitted to the city clerk, who will review them and initial each report, Tanksley said.

The recommendation also includes that six times a year those initialed reconciliations will be presented to the board for review.

The second difficulty the auditors had with the audit process was the fact that subledgers sometimes disagreed with the general ledger, a problem that was exacerbated by a death in the bookkeeping department, Tanksley said.

“I think it provided a wake-up call for cross training and for contingency plans, for putting in some backup in these positions so that family emergencies don’t tie up city government,” she said.

The final internal control the auditors recommended was that all original paid receipts for city business be kept at City Hall and departments that need to track those receipts be given copies.

Tied to that is a recommendation that the city implement a standardized way of entering invoices into its bookkeeping system so that items don’t get paid twice, Tanksley said.

“There were instances where some vendors were paid twice, and we did see where some of the vendors did send the money back or applied it to a subsequent payment,” she said.

“The other issue that came up part of the reason we found duplicate payments issued — manual checks would be issued and then a computer payment would be issued.”

The solution to that problem is to ultimately make manual check writing the exception rather than the rule, Tanksley said, and to require that each manual check have a hand signature and not just a stamped signature from the mayor or the city clerk.

“That way, there’s a second set of eyes on this who can ask why are we paying this outside of our normal process,” she said.

Tanksley said the auditors would be checking in periodically to ensure the recommended processes would be put in place.

The aldermen later voted to accept the audit with the recommendations, though Alderman Dan Dillard expressed concern that the trial balances for some funds were still at variance with the budget report provided by the city clerk’s office.

Of particular concern was the fact that the city paid $986,000 for garbage collection, but Natchez Water Works — which collects the $13 garbage fee for the city on its monthly bills to customers — only remitted the city $660,000.

“How did Water Works not send us all the garbage collection money?” he said. “The trial balances disagree with the budget report, but the trial balances are essentially supposed to be the end-of-year balances.”

Dillard said he also saw discrepancies with funds for work related to Hurricane Gustav, Tropical Storm Isaac and the Natchez Trails project.

In other news:

-Mayor Butch Brown said he would like the aldermen to start considering how the city is going to address the issue of open carry weapons on city property in light of House Bill 2, the law that clarifies that Mississippi residents have the right to carry unconcealed firearms virtually everywhere.

“I think we can all agree we don’t want any guns in a public location,” he said.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said even with the law in place the city has the right to restrict firearms in “historically sensitive” areas such as government buildings and parks.

“We should have a discussion about what we should do because the city code is silent about the city’s role in the carrying of firearms,” Carby said.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery asked if the proposed restrictions would stop someone wearing a gun from using city sidewalks.

“I would much rather see a gun on your side than hidden in your boot or something,” Fortenbery said. “You are taking rights away from taxpayers.”

Brown responded that he was not talking about restricting sidewalks and streets.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis expressed support for restricting firearms in government buildings, saying it was about “protection.”

“I know this law came from the governor and the Legislature, but I can guarantee you right now that you cannot walk into the Legislature (with a gun), that you have to go through a metal detector and that you cannot even bring an umbrella into the hall upstairs,” she said.

-Carby said he would be seeking an opinion from the state attorney general’s office about the city’s plan to switch the offices of city clerk and municipal judge from elected to appointed positions.

That’s because the change might affect the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, Carby said, which is currently being reexamined in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

“I would like to seek the guidance of the attorney general’s office in the process of amending our charter because I would hate to see that we go through the process of changing our charter and then the law has changed,” he said.

-Alderman Ricky Gray issued a call for the community to become more involved in the lives of young people in light of a recent youth suicide in town.

“Kids go through different things than when I was a kid,” Gray said.

“When you look at something like that, it is a community thing, and this community needs to get together and have some kind of workshops or we need to have some more mentors for our kids.”

But Alderman Tony Fields — who said he knew the young person who died in Fields’ role as an educator — offered another perspective.

“I had people asking me, ‘What are we going to do?” But I directed everybody who called me to start thinking a little smaller first,” he said. “I sat my three (children) down and had a long serious talk about the circumstances that were allegedly encircling this young lady — we need to speak to our own children first, and I think we will be better to help our community that way.”

 

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