Petersburg audit made an issue

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

PETERSBURG -- The district attorney over both parts of this border town will be examining the municipality's latest audit, but according to the interim mayor who presided at Monday night's town board meeting, there's not much to find.

The town that straddles the border of Marshall and Lincoln counties had a contentious meeting last week with residents complaining that their review of town finances "don't add up." The meeting this week lasted 12 minutes and was followed by a long conversation with the man who ran the meeting.

"I have looked at the finances we have and we have the money to pay the auditors and keep the town running," said James Owen, successor to John Cowden, who resigned as mayor one week earlier.

Owen is also a criminal investigator for the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department, has sworn out many arrest warrants during his career and, therefore, knows and understands the workings of the office now run by District Attorney Chuck Crawford, the immediate past sessions court judge in Lincoln County.

"Somebody called" about Petersburg's audit, Crawford said late last week. "We will be looking at that and then we will take appropriate action... It all depends on what we will find.

"Whenever there are findings of any audit," Crawford said, using the auditors' term "findings" for any kind of discrepancy, "we look at them. We'll look at any information that we get."

It's a fact of financial life in Tennessee that the Comptroller of the Treasury's Divisions of Municipal and County Audit review local governments' records on money and related policy.

It's a reality learned recently by Marshall County commissioners when auditors pointed out that the county should have called for bids before awarding a maintenance contract for county buildings. There was a finding and bid specifications were to be rewritten.

It did not, however, rise to the level of criminality. The consequences include additional work and the related realization that, in Tennessee, only professional services -- such as auditing, legal counsel, architectural and engineering work -- are exempt from formal bidding.

The auditors didn't see maintenance work as something that requires post graduate college-level diplomas.

"I'm not understanding some of what the people have said" about town finances, Owen said. "We've had two audits and one comptroller's audit and they found a few discrepancies, but it was in the (computer) software. We've changed that.

"We had some minor findings," he continued. "It was not large amounts of money. It was mis-figuring or mis-adding.

"We're not rich by any means," the self-described interim mayor said, "but we're paying our bills and keeping everything caught up.

"When the state comptroller's office was called in, they took all the records we had for a year and went over them -- the ones that were in question -- with a fine-tooth comb.

"There was supposed to have been money that was misappropriated, but their findings were not about large amounts of money, and right after that, we voted to go to a better grade of software," Owen said.

"Two years ago, there was a task force to get the town out of the red," Owen said.

He said he can't explain why the town's finances were so poor, previously, but concludes that spending may have been too much on things that weren't absolutely necessary.

The town's budget, in broad terms, is about $230,000 to $250,000, he said. After the task force completed its work, the town went from being in debt to having a $14,000 excess. Owen compliments task force members, including Gene Robertson, Kenneth Boles and Phillip McMillian.

One of two items of business Monday night in Petersburg's Town Hall was approved by a unanimous vote. It was to pay the Fayetteville-based Putman & Hancock Certified Public Accountants' $11,479 bill for the annual audit as required by state law.

The contract dated June 2, 2008, stated a base price of $10,810 plus expenses. The expenses account for the difference between the base and the actual price.

In contrast, Lewisburg's most recent audit cost $25,000. The Marshall County 911 Board -- the panel that administers funds for emergency dispatch call centers -- had a recent audit cost about $5,000.

Petersburg's aldermen postponed payment of their town's auditor during its regular monthly meeting on March 9.

Alderman Brad Dillenback asked this Monday if another firm "could be given a chance to bid" on the job.

Owen, who's serving as interim mayor because he had been vice mayor, replied that Putman & Hancock has conducted the annual for 10 years. He indicated he was uncertain if the job must be subject to competitive bids, or whether it's exempt from that requirement.

"It is" exempt, Town Recorder Dawn Forlines replied.

Alderman Kenneth Boles moved to pay the auditor and Alderman Phillip McMillian seconded the motion. It passed unanimously.

One of the reasons the special called meeting was required this week was because newly appointed Alderman Ricky Wright hadn't completed his review of town finances and other aldermen wee interested in what his findings would show. Wright didn't report on Monday.

Asked about that after the meeting, Wright replied, "I'm not ready to make a comment on it tonight."

Asked when he thought he could do so, he replied, "I hope maybe by the next meeting I'll have some information available."

Given the brief and peaceful meeting this week, Wright was asked if he was surprised. He was not.

"It seems like after a meeting with chaos, we have a smooth one," Wright said. "So after the last meeting, I thought we were due a smooth one."

Since Cowden resigned, there's been some speculation about whether Owen might continue to preside at Town Board meetings, or if another alderman might be elected mayor. Petersburg aldermen run at-large and then they elect someone to be mayor.

"I probably will" want to continue to preside, Owen said. "Things ran smoothly tonight. I think we can get things straightened out and stop the arguments...

"I've had people ask" about continuing to preside Owen said, "and I've said 'I'd have to think about it,' but I'm not going to let arguments and things change my mind.

"I took this job to make the town better," Owen continued. "If they want me to be mayor, I'll work that much harder to do right for the town."

The next meeting of the Petersburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen is on April 13 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.