More change needed in government

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Last time, we looked at the financial review of the Natchez Convention Center (NCC). The review confirms the need for an audit; however, at a joint city/Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission (NCPC) meeting on Feb. 5, Alderwoman Arceneaux-Mathis was markedly unconcerned about the missing information. Her lack of concern, with the help of others, has put us where we are. Taxpayers should object in writing to the city moving ahead with discussions for award of any contract for future management of NCC until the city has the missing information and reports for all years of management and operations by the fiduciary, New Orleans Hotel Consultants (NOHC). Please forward written objections to Megan Edmonds, City Clerk, 124 South Pearl Street, Natchez, MS 39120, or submit by email to Ask that your objection be spread on the city’s minute books.

Embarrassingly, the aging NCC facility still has debt of over $7 million after 19 years. Another bond refund scheme is now afoot. The signs point to city officials borrowing even more money to fix up the NCC. Perhaps it should be sold.

Now, let’s briefly consider the hidden “forensic audit” the city ordered in September 2016. There is both bad and good news to report.

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The forensic audit was a campaign issue in 2016. It was timely ordered  in September 2016. It is dated February 2017, but the receipt of it has never been publicly acknowledged. Like so many other buried city issues, it was received, never announced, shelved, forgotten and never revealed to taxpayers, until a public records request was issued.

First, consultant Tom Fore, hired  to work on bank statement reconciliations in the forensic audit,  is cited as saying that it was the worst situation he had ever seen in 50 years. Predictably, blame and excuses were directed at staff turnover at City Hall and improper training and supervision. A professional disagreement remains among those who want a fully integrated and consolidated accounting system and those who prefer dozens of bank accounts, 57 at the time of the 2017 forensic audit, who believe that segregated fund balances are easier to monitor and manage than a consolidated set of books. There are pros and cons to each approach. This is an issue on which taxpayers should force a discussion. At bottom is the question of where is the money, and how much expense should taxpayers bear, with neglectful officials routinely allowing financial records to be fouled up and then corrected, at great expense. Why have your elected public officials simply not demanded competency and paid for it? How do they expect us to attract any serious industry when simple books cannot be kept competently? Why do you put up with this?

Second, the audit noted that the city’s 2013 accounting year yielded a complete disclaimer on audited opinions. Then, 2014 and 2015 improved slightly, moving from complete disclaimers to qualified opinions. The audit shows that the prior administration completely failed the city taxpayers, stating that this was “the result of failure to adequately perform basic accounting functions . . . disclaimers and qualified audit reports are serious red flags . . . ultimate responsibility . . . rests with the governing authorities.”

Third, the audit opines that the city does not comply with Mississippi budgeting law. Predictably, the scapegoat was the city’s antiquated special code charter dating to 1846. A recurring issue is that the city has trouble getting advice because those trained in modern government administrative practices glaze over when asked to wade through the Natchez labyrinth. Is our failure to modernize just another example of local lethargy and malaise, or is it intentional, welcomed by elected officials who like dealing in the shadows, blind alleys and fog? It is time to dissolve the city. Either a complete dissolution or change to a local government form in step with 21st century realities would be an improvement. Our declining population naturally demands reduction in the size of city government, or its elimination.  Please call your alderman.

The mayor and three aldermen, Billie Joe Frazier, Felicia Irving and Benjamin Davis, cannot be blamed for the disastrous books they inherited in July 2016. The 2016 audit, six months late, improved to an “unmodified opinion,” which indicates that some progress is being made to fix the city’s books; however, we taxpayers are still left with the nagging question of aldermen Dan Dillard, Sarah Smith and Arceneaux-Mathis allowing mismanagement of city assets under their watch in the years prior to July 2016.  And, none of the current elected officials is excused from failure to report the receipt of and results of the forensic audit promptly. Choosing to sweep the forensic audit findings under the rug should alarm taxpayers. We deserve better.
Paul Benoist is a Natchez resident.