Officials dispute Hale County financial discrepancies

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 19, 2004

Two members of the Hale County Commission have differing views on why the commission office has had problems with recordkeeping over the last few years and cannot pay bills in a timely manner.

An audit of the financial statements of the Hale County Commission, from Oct. 1, 2001 to Sept. 30, 2002, by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts found numerous problems with financial reporting in commission meetings and the commission office. Although the audit concerned an earlier period, many of the same problems have been debated in recent commission meetings.

Chairman Leland Avery continues to express concern over past due bills not being paid. However, he said Tuesday that as of March 12 “we did pay just about all the bills.” There are still a few large bills that still need to be sorted out, he said.

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Avery will ask again at the upcoming Monday commission meeting that the solid waste billing and accounts payables be moved to a separate office from the commission office. The work in the commission office is so complex, he said. “There’s just so much to do that the accounts payable clerk falls behind in her work because she has to do the solid waste (paperwork),” he said. “She spends half her time on solid waste.” Moving that out “would free her time up.”

“There were so many unanswered questions when I became an elected official,” commissioner Yolanda Watkins said Wednesday. She took office in November 2003. “There were so many things the chairman (Avery) wouldn’t answer.”

As a new member of the commission, Watkins was trying to get some answers. “I’ve still haven’t gotten answers,” she said.

“The chairman keeps bringing up that the bills are not being paid.” From her research, Watkins said the problem has been going on for years through three administrators. “This just didn’t start happening,” she said.

Avery said accounting practices in the commission office have not been followed since October 2001.

The chairman used to have more control over the commission office, Watkins said. “The tight type of buddy system we had going here was unbelievable. Now we’re going in (the commission office) and trying to find out what’s going on….We’re still under investigation.

“A whole lot of our files are missing out of the office….We can’t put pieces together. When we ask the chairman where they (the files) are, he doesn’t know or they are in his office.”

There is a bill from Hale County Co-op for over $3,000. Watkins said there is not paperwork to justify who bought fence posting and wire. “Who purchased this stuff?” There was no documentation or P.O. number, she said. “All we’re asking him (Avery) to do is offer legal documentation.”

Avery said the three commissioners don’t allow his to fulfill his duties as commission chairman. By law “I’m supposed to be the day-to-day operations supervisor, but they (the commission) hired her….They (the commission office) really takes orders from them and not me. They just kind of bypass me.”

In some meetings Avery states that his only duty is to open and close the meetings, Watkins said. “The chairman does not have a vote at the table at all – except in a tie. In some instances when he wants to get things done his way, he’s the big dog.

“He wants to have control,” she said. “Things have got to go his way, but it’s not that way. We’re serving the citizens…and we have to do what’s right. That’s the way I was raised – be fair and be honest.”

“…They can override anything that I do by a vote of three-to-one (commissioner Watkins, Lois Fields and Joe Lee Hamilton against commissioner Walter Allen),” Avery said

“…I want to let the citizens of the county know how their office is being run,” he said. “All of a sudden – since I brought this issue up (of not paying bills) – they’ve gotten all these bills done. Once you bring it to the attention of the commission and the citizens, that’s when they’ll do something. But they’re not going to do anything until you bring it up….They just sluff it off.”

Previously, Avery left the commission office to be run by the administrator, Watkins said. He is obviously not happy with the current administrator Regina Shavers and is vocal about his displeasure, she said.

“We haven’t had a monthly financial update since January 2003,” Avery said. “…We don’t know where we are financially.”

The previous administrator Mark Tyner left in November 2002. After an interim period Shavers became administrator full time in March 2003.

“I didn’t have any say so” on hiring Shavers, Avery said.

“She (Shavers) inherited a lot of this,” Watkins said. “She’s just trying to keep her head above water and do what’s right.”

“At one time Mr. Avery was the only one signing checks,” she said. That was changed through a vote by the current commission; the checks now require two signatures.

Watkins would like to see a working session called to solve the bookkeeping problem. She said Avery is never available for such as meeting. “Every time it comes up about a workshop he’s got to go to a meeting or he can’t attend.”

In the instance where county firefighters protested regarding late payments from the commission office, Watkins said the protest was instigated by Avery on a day Watkins and commissioner Lois Fields were out of town at a grant writing seminar.

“He (Avery) needs to work more with the commission,” Watkins said. “Everything around us is growing; all the surrounding counties are growing. We’re just at a standstill now because we’re always at the table bickering about unnecessary things.

“We need to gain respect for each other and just sit down and talk things out….We’ve got to be able to talk civil to each other, and we haven’t been doing that.” However, Watkins is frankly not very optimistic about things improving.

Avery thinks the commission will ignore the findings of the audit. The county can’t be audited now because the books for December 2003 have yet to be closed out, he said.

Even if the commission office was running smoothly, Avery said the county doesn’t have enough money to pay bills. Hale County is spending more than the revenue it receives, the chairman said, and that is a fault of the commission.

“The commission is supposed to have a budget and to make sure it has enough revenues to cover the budget.” The county has been running a deficit, he said. “They need more revenue or they’re going to have to cutback on spending….The commission won’t face the problem.”