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Taxpayers deserve squeaky clean audit

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By BEN CARLSON

Last Tuesday’s fiscal court meeting served as the perfect example of why Anderson County continues to receive remarkably poor state audits (see A1).
During a routine vote to approve budget transfers, Magistrate David Ruggles questioned why some figures being proposed by Treasurer Dudley Shryock didn’t appear to add up.
Shryock tried several times to explain what was being proposed, but Ruggles simply didn’t understand what he was talking about.
Ruggles, regarded by frequent observers of fiscal court meetings to be “the most intelligent magistrate on the court,” finally looked to fellow magistrates and asked if any of them understood what Shryock was saying.
“Am I the only DA who doesn’t understand this?” Ruggles asked.
Their response? Laughter.
So Ruggles asked again and the response was exactly the same — laughter, with not a single magistrate answering his question.
The transfers, which were almost certainly accurately performed by Shryock, were approved and the meeting came to an end.
Ruggles has a well-earned reputation as the court’s antagonist when it comes to paying bills, which usually happens at the end of hours-long meetings when everyone else is eager to adjourn.
This isn’t to infer others don’t ask questions or care about taxpayer dollars, too, but rarely do ask questions as often as Ruggles.
As was the case last Tuesday, the usual reaction he receives from those with whom he serves is a combination of rolled eyes, good-natured laughs and, occasionally, an irritated sigh.
That has to change.
Given how poorly this county has performed on its past several audits, one would think magistrates would join Ruggles in being extremely skeptical and demand full explanations of how tax dollars are spent.
Yes, in a perfect world those in charge of putting together bills lists and managing the county’s day-to-day finances should be able to be counted on to do that job.
But there is a good reason why since taking office in 2010, Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway is on his third finance officer, and it isn’t because the first two performed their duties exceptionally well.
If they had, taxpayers wouldn’t have been on the hook to pay for muscle building supplements, urinary pain pills or other ridiculous purchases that were made with county credit cards.
Conway, who fell on the sword for the two recent audits, shouldn’t be alone in accepting blame.
There were plenty of clues over the past several years that something was amiss. Remember Lea Beasmore’s failed sexual harassment lawsuit a few years ago? A major underlying factor in that lawsuit stemmed from her concerns about how the finance officer at that time was performing, with problems ranging from cancellation notices for missed insurance payments to interruptions in Internet services — at county offices, for crying out loud.
Yet when the county prevailed in the lawsuit, everyone but Beasmore celebrated and put the entire sordid episode behind them.
But the problems didn’t end, even when that finance officer was finally let go.
Almost without exception, the fiscal court’s biweekly bills lists still included errors ranging from items being improperly coded to bills being presented for payment when payment had already been made.
Consider, too, that taxpayers for years bought lunches for work-release inmates — we’re not talking about items from Mickey D’s dollar menu here — before it was realized that inmates were provided a lunch from the jail and the practice stopped.
Is it unreasonable to expect all six magistrates to take the time to personally examine each and every invoice before approving payment? Perhaps, but in exchange for free health care, cell phone reimbursement, retirement and the stipend each magistrate is eligible to receive, each must swear that they work a minimum of 100 hours each month.
Do they actually work 25 hours a week on average? You’d have to take that up with them, but until this county receives a squeaky clean audit that doesn’t include foolish purchases, perhaps their 100 hours a month should include a little more time spent doing just that.