Originally created 03/29/03

Official sees problems in old job



When he resigned last year for a position in Augusta, veteran Chatham County Finance Director David Persaud left more than his job. He left behind a steadily deteriorating finance department - one plagued by employee infighting, inexperience and a growing backlog of work.

Truth be told, Mr. Persaud says he's glad he's gone.

"I saw the problems were coming and nobody would listen," he said Friday from his Augusta office, explaining that elected officials in Savannah dipped into their general fund reserves, delayed the approval of a balanced budget and cut the county's finance staff to the bone.

So it has comes as no surprise to him that things have only worsened since he has been gone from Chatham County, news recently delivered to commissioners during an independent audit of the past fiscal year, which ended in June.

"We're in a crisis situation, and we're managing the crisis," said Chatham County Manager Russ Abolt.

That crisis is similar to the kind of financial problems Augusta had before Mr. Persaud's arrival. Augusta went 17 months without a permanent finance director before hiring him away from Savannah, and since then, city audits have recorded marked improvements.

Chatham County's most recent audit nearly mirrored one issued 2 1/2 years ago to Augusta commissioners. It did not detect any illegal activity but auditors recorded a continuing trend of unbalanced accounts and unrecorded transactions.

At the time, Augusta's finance department said many of the problems noted by auditors were partly caused by a short-staffed department coping with a new accounting software system.

Although auditors found Chatham County to be in compliance with accounting standards, they detailed a dozen serious procedural problems within its Finance Department.

Topping the list: The county is not producing timely or accurate financial statements.

In some cases, bank accounts were not reconciled for as long as 12 months - a recipe for disaster because banks allow only 60 days to report and correct errors. After that deadline passes, losses cannot be recovered.

The staff has put its response to the audit in writing, attributing most of the problems to the resignation and retirement of three key managers, including Mr. Persaud. Within a year, the entire management structure of the Finance Department dissolved.

"Personnel discord contributed mightily to the dysfunctional nature of this department," the response states. "This discord has affected the attitude of some of our employees and has not fully abated."

Since Mr. Persaud left for his job in Augusta in May, County Auditor Reese White has served as interim finance director. That takes him from his role overseeing the finances of the entire county operation, a position that is key to preventing white-collar crime and accounting irregularities.

Meanwhile, the Chatham County finance staff is working to meet new accounting standards and install a new computer system.

It's this confluence of issues that has led to the current crisis, Mr. Abolt said.

"With the financial report out of the way, we'll now focus on solving the internal problems in the Finance Department," the county manager said.

And now Chatham County is the one aggressively seeking a new finance director, and Mr. Abolt said the staff, which hasn't grown since 1994, will need to be restructured with more employees.

Mr. Persaud agrees with those measures.

"They were cutting key staff and not addressing the problem and allowing the problem to go on," he said. "It's irresponsible."

In his report to commissioners, Mr. Abolt warns that next year's budget should not include any across-the-board cuts or further hiring freezes.

Mr. Persaud, who says he feels Chatham County officials are blaming him for their problems, plans to write officials there next week.

"They created that mess," he said. "They need to correct it and keep me out of it."