Is accounting a popularity contest?

Published 12:03 am Friday, June 29, 2012

If there were an annual meeting of elected Mississippi city clerks, their convention could be held around a small table. There are only a handful of them in the state — seven at last count.

Their numbers must have been greater at one time. Surely most of the 200 or so municipalities had elected city clerks at one time. Now this group of elected officials has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

If so, Natchez must be the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the group. It is the largest of these seven cities and towns that select their chief financial officers by popular vote.

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The only qualification for the Natchez city clerk is that he or she lives in the city limits. Those who wish to run are not required to have any accounting experience. They do not even have to show that they can balance their own checkbooks.

It is hard not to wonder why Natchez still clings to an elected city clerk, especially after listening to Thursday evening’s continuation of a recessed meeting of the Natchez board of aldermen.

During the meeting, Deanne Tanksley with the Gillon Group reported a clean audit to the mayor and board.

A preliminary look at the report might give the impression all is right with the city and its finances. After all, if the city were a business, Natchez would have made $3.5 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

A closer examination of the findings reveals “material weaknesses” — the strongest language an auditor can use to identify areas of concern that could lead to misstatements and other problems. This is the first year such language has been used on a Natchez audit.

The auditor encountered significant obstacles trying to get financial information from the city clerk’s office. Apparently, the obstacles were such that what would have a been a routine audit completed in 90 or so days took six months to complete. It took up to the very last day of the auditing deadline to get an audit reported and adopted this year.

In January, when the auditing process started, Tanksley said she had the option to offer a qualified opinion, an adverse opinion and even a disclaimer that would have jeopardized any federal funding for the city. Instead, she chose to work through the obstacles because she lives in Natchez and didn’t want to harm the city in which she lives and works.

Still, major problems exist. The city recently bought new accounting software, but the software is only as good as the people running it, Tanksley reminded.

Tanksley strongly advised the city clerk’s office to hire an accountant who would be hands-on with operations. Doing so could help alleviate some of the problems.

Even still, one has to wonder if the biggest problem is that the city clerk is elected and not appointed.

Adopted in 1846, the city charter defined the elected offices for Natchez. The city clerk was one of these positions. In 166 years, the accounting of the city’s finances has become significantly more complicated, especially when it comes to complying with government regulations.

Seven or eight years ago, the city had only to report on a cash basis. Federal government auditing standards require more.

Like the city attorney, who should possess the qualifications to practice law, should the city clerks posses a minimum of qualifications in financial accounting?

Much is at stake. Five million dollars in federal fund expenditures were reported in 2010-2011.

Isn’t it time for our city to move from electing a city clerk to appointing one?

Isn’t it time to require our city clerk be more than just a citizen of Natchez?


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540.