Originally created 01/06/01

Get a handle on Finance



Deep Throat - the anonymous source who fed tips to The Washington Post that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal - gave Post reporters this cryptic and infamous clue: Follow the money.

If residents followed the city of Augusta's money the past two years, they might conclude what an independent auditor did, i.e., that city finances were in shambles, and those in charge couldn't or wouldn't explain why.

This week the Augusta Commission finally bit the bullet and let go of Lon Morrey, the city's comptroller. After giving Morrey six months to fix the Finance Department mess, it became clear he was going to dig in his heels and become increasingly obstructionist about changes that were recommended by an independent consulting firm.

Morrey became cross-threaded with commissioners after auditors from the firm of Cherry Bekaert & Holland criticized the department for an appalling lack of record-keeping and millions of dollars that were logged to incorrect accounts.

That's right, millions. In a list of examples, auditors pointed out one problem involving Internal Service Fund expenses for 1999 of $2.7 million that were not allocated to the right fund until August 2000. That's just one in more than a dozen bumbling accounting errors the auditors uncovered.

The consultants were able to sort through the mess eventually and found no wrongdoing; it was simply incompetence and lack of attention to detail - and some foot dragging, as well. In a memo to commissioners last spring, auditors expressed dismay that the audit could not be completed because the Finance Department was slow in providing requested information.

Granted, the installation of new accounting software and the fact that several key positions in the Finance Department are vacant factor into the debacle. But the buck stopped with the comptroller. Also, the auditors said that during the time period errors were made, the department was adequately staffed.

The commission also voted to reorganize the Finance Department and eliminate Morrey's position, creating instead a city finance director. Auditors had recommended an entirely restructured department to create a system of internal controls.

But the problem doesn't stop at the Finance Department. What the commission is faced with now is trying to attract a caliber of people for several key administrative posts that remain empty. Unfortunately, with the highly polarized way that the current commissioners often operate, top-quality candidates may take a pass on Augusta and seek less dysfunctional organizations with which to associate.

Until the Augusta Commission starts acting like a group of rational leaders who stick to the high road, make thoughtful and independent decisions and demonstrate they can lead, they may well have to settle for whomever they can find who is simply thick-skinned or thick-headed enough to work for them.