Originally created 02/10/01

Grand jury faults tax offices' security



Random audits and more advanced security measures should be implemented at county tag offices to prevent theft and embezzlement within the city's tax department, according to an interim presentment released Friday by the Richmond County Special Grand Jury.

And the city should make better use of its internal auditor by expanding periodic and random audits to encompass government departments citywide, jurors said.

The special grand jury's latest presentment marks the fourth to be released in the past 14 months.

A January presentment targeted Augusta commissioners, accusing them of divisiveness, incompetence and micromanagement. But the report released Friday more closely imitates the other two presentments that have been released because it examines specific departments in city operations: the offices of the tax assessor and the tax commissioner.

The motor vehicle tag department, a branch of the Tax Commission Office, received the most criticism from grand jurors.

"Internal auditing procedures are not adequate to prevent employees from stealing money from the county tag office," read the presentment, which was signed shortly before 3 p.m. by Judge Albert M. Pickett. "A substantial amount of money is entrusted to single individuals, with no direct oversight or surprise audits. These practices have been in place for many years and have gone unchallenged."

Jurors' observations on the tag office were part of a 1´-page report, which was compiled from the testimony of employees from both the tax assessor and tax commissioner's offices.

Stephanie Lynn Womack, 33, who worked in the Office of the Tax Commissioner's motor vehicle tag department for 11 years, was named Jan. 16 in a 70-count indictment for allegedly stealing money from the tag office. She is accused of taking more than $121,000 between Nov. 15, 1989, and Sept. 14 from the office, where she had access to computer entries for payments of ad valorem taxes and tag fees and had access to the safe where cash receipts were stored.

The special grand jury report referred to the alleged theft, noting that no internal audits of the tag office took place until after Ms. Womack had been arrested.

Special grand jurors recommended the "thorough review of procedures for handling cash ... to ensure that single employees are not entrusted with exclusive access to cash and records and receipts."

An absence of written rules and procedures in the tax commissioner's office indicates "poor organizational control," as does the practice of not balancing cash drawers at the end of each work day or cross-checking paper receipts against computer entries, grand jurors wrote.

They also recommended installing security cameras, conducting surprise audits and rotating employees' duties to ward off crime.

Mayor Bob Young said he supports additional auditing measures to protect city offices from becoming targets of crime. The finance committee of the Augusta Commission, which meets Monday, is slated to discuss setting up a schedule of work for Baird & Co., the city's internal auditor, he said.

"The fact that we haven't used our internal auditor aggressively is a direct reflection on the administrator and the commission," Mr. Young said. "We haven't really paid enough attention to the accountability issue."

Had the city been following the grand jury's advice all along, officials might not be faced with many of the recent accusations of mismanagement in the Finance Department, the fire department and the Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development, he said.

The special grand jury, made up of 23 residents, was impaneled Nov. 29, 1999.

Over the past 14 months, a number of city officials have been called to testify, and hundreds of government documents have been requested for examination.

The officials listed as being interviewed by grand jurors for Friday's presentment were: Interim Chief Tax Assessor Meg Woodward; Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul; Deputy Tax Commissioner North Williamson; Chairman of the Tax Assessment Board Bill Lee; Director of the Motor Vehicle Tag Office Roger Tomlin; Financial Officer for the Tax Commissioner Jack McAdams; and the city's internal auditor, J.T. Cosnahan of Baird and Co.

Grand jurors noted that inconsistencies in computer software have affected the collection rate of property taxes, but they said the city's collection of overdue taxes is "on track." The installation of a computer terminal to track bankruptcy proceedings also has improved efficiency, the presentment said.

But jurors noted that upgrades to the county's tax software "are urgently needed" for more prompt collection of property taxes.

The report also endorsed combining the two tax offices, noting that it seemed like a "logical approach" because most other counties in Georgia have combined offices for the tax assessor and tax commissioner.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.