Tuesday, February 01, 2011

1 FEB 11 (final): Smith and Lessons

The good news is that Phenix City's 2009 audit report is now final. The bad news is that a city employee paid a penalty for it - much worse than the City Clerk having a flu bug. At least the City Clerk could take sick leave....

BLOG EXCLUSIVE: As we first posted at 1:15 p.m. ET Monday, Phenix City Finance Director Stephen Smith confesses he's had to take a suspension without pay because of discrepancies with the city's 2009 outside audit. It's not clear when that suspension occurred, or how long it lasted. Neighbors will have to reveal when they spotted Smith outside, doing extra gardening.

"Some bank records and accounting records were not kept up to date, like they should have been," Stephen Smith admitted in an interview Monday at Phenix City Hall. Smith said a former employee made errors, but he failed to back up that work to make it right. At least Smith didn't have to back up a truck to clean out his office....

"I deserved it," Stephen Smith told your blog about his suspension. "I am deeply embarrassed by the lateness of this report." But Phenix City Manager Wallace Hunter told me he still likes Smith, and the problems in city bookkeeping now are resolved. Just in time for the 2010 outside audit to find whether or not that's true.

It was the Phenix City Manager who called me Monday morning, asking me to come to his office for a discussion of the 2009 financial report. Even though I'd asked about the report last week, this call was a surprise. I had a flashback to grade school -- even though I never was called into the principal's office then.

Wallace Hunter and Stephen Smith told me the final 2009 report from Albany accountants Mauldin and Jenkins arrived at Phenix City Hall Friday. I was not allowed to look at the audit report before the afternoon City Council work session - which may prove Chuck Williams at the Ledger-Enquirer is more persuasive with city contacts than I am.

So why did the 2009 report not become final until January 2011? Stephen Smith explained it was partly due to a change in accountants. In the past, Phenix City converted its financial records from "cash reporting" to a "modified accrual method" after the audit. Mauldin and Jenkins wanted that done before the audit. Who could have guessed modified accrual would leave such a cruel mark on an employment record?

"We weren't ready," Stephen Smith admitted concerning that conversion of records. But the Finance Director seemed to be ready for other kinds of conversion -- at least judging from the Bible displayed on his necktie.

But I digress: Stephen Smith said Mauldin and Jenkins found a "long list of discrepancies" in Phenix City's accounting. Yet Smith also said an unnamed city employee made "very few errors"- errors discovered only after that employee moved on. You'd think city computers would come equipped with built-in calculators....

"I should have followed up on the work that employee was doing," Stephen Smith told me. Instead, he simply asked the worker if the job was done. That approach has cost many taxpayers a big refund check at this time of year.

The Finance Director verified one item we noted last Thursday - Phenix City received a "draft audit" from Mauldin and Jenkins. Stephen Smith says it was checked for accuracy in terms of format, but with NO changes in the numbers. I guess that means they're still using base-ten mathematics.

Phenix City officials say the records now are in compliance. But the Finance Director admits there were "some accounting deficiencies.... I have been disciplined because of that." Yet Stephen Smith still has his job - and he might want to call the Columbus Fire Chief about starting some sort of support group.

As a result of the discrepancies, a 2009 financial report that should have been completed last June finally was presented to a Phenix City Council work session Monday afternoon. City Manager Wallace Hunter assured me the report will be posted on the city website in the process of time. There you go, Superintendent DiChiara - city money being used for business education.

But the work session about Phenix City's financial records was upstaged by another issue - whether Councilor Arthur Sumbry would show up, three days after his arrest. Sumbry's known for being short, but he couldn't hide this time.

WTVM spotted Arthur Sumbry at the meeting, but he refused to answer questions about the forgery and perjury charges against him. City Manager Wallace Hunter told me he had no comment on the case, except that it's "unfortunate" and apparently concerns Sumbry's private business practices. Who could guess working as a notary could seal someone's political fate?

I asked Wallace Hunter about one accusation Phenix City government critics have made against Arthur Sumbry. Did Sumbry order a city work crew to pave his mortuary parking lot? Hunter said if it happened, it occurred before he became City Manager. And Hunter speculated the city right of way might have been a factor -- so perhaps travelers might mistake the small mortuary for a rest stop.

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E-MAIL UPDATE: Before the Phenix City Manager called us Monday, we'd planned to look into this - the discovery of hair, a bone and trash in an open grave at East Porterdale Cemetery. A blog reader sent me 25 pictures of Saturday's finds. I've posted only the tamest photo - even if viewers of the TV series "Bones" decide that makes me a wimp.

The TV newsrooms apparently also received those cemetery pictures, and went digging asked for details. East Porterdale is a city-run cemetery, and WRBL reported the open grave is in a section set aside for pauper burials. It's almost as if the trash in the plot could be some survivor's treasure.

Muscogee County Coroner Bill Thrower told WTVM he thinks the bone in the open grave is from an animal. But it will be analyzed in Atlanta to be sure. And in the meantime, let's be thankful the Port Columbus staff hasn't declared this discovery evidence that their museum is haunted.

COMING SOON: The Phenix City Manager addresses another curious local rumor....

Today's main topic was a follow-up to a blog reader's tip. To offer a story tip, advertise to our readers, make a PayPal donation or comment, write me - but be warned, I may post your e-mail comment and offer a reply.

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