Hale Commission audit made public

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 7, 2005

After every fiscal year, the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts performs an audit on the finances of all the state’s governing bodies. When the Examiners performed their most recent audit on the Hale County Commission’s books, they didn’t much like what they saw.

That audit, covering the fiscal year October 1, 2002 through September 30, 2003, was certified and made public last month. Examiners made 29 separate “findings” of discrepancies and errors in the Hale Commission’s books, ranging from failure to pay the county’s bills on time to misappropriation of funds to inconsistencies in the acceptance of bids. By comparison, Baldwin County’s audit (despite Baldwin’s substantially higher population) revealed only 6 findings, none of which were the more serious “material” errors that make up a number of the Hale findings.

What does it mean? According to Commission chairman Judge Leland Avery, by this point, not a lot.

“Everything’s OK,” he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “There’s nothing illegal in there. There’s no money missing or that’s having to be repaid. It’s mostly just transfers of funds that were done incorrectly. There was an administrator who didn’t really know how to handle the books correctly. But all the discrepancies have been corrected.”

This includes, Avery said, financial charges against the five 2002-2003 Commissioners (Avery, Walter Allen, James Brown, Lois Fields, and Joe Lee Hamilton, Jr.) totaling more than $129,000 due to “unallowable expenditures and transfers” related to the county’s Gasoline Tax Fund and RRR Gasoline Tax Fund.

“Just like the other findings, the money has been transferred back to the correct fund,” he said. “We’ve got that all straightened out.

“We’ve made some changes in employment,” he added, “and now everything’s going great.”

Avery said that the Commission is currently in the process of being audited again, and that this time, he expects dramatically fewer findings than in the current report.

“There shouldn’t be hardly any in the next audit,” he said. “Everything’s running smoothly.”

That’ll be good news to any Hale residents troubled by the 2002-2003 audit. Some of the more eye-opening findings in the Examiners’ report:

* Thanks in part to accounts payable balances added after September 30, 2003, the Commission did not close the fiscal year 2003 records until April 2004, six months behind schedule.

* Funds raised by the county’s fire protection ad valorem tax are constitutionally required to be paid to the county’s firefighters association within 30 days of their payment into the general fund. The Commission did not make these payments within the 30-day limit.

* The Commission’s travel policy provides for a maximum meal allowance of $35 per day for employees and officials traveling on official county business. Reimbursements were made “on several occasions” that exceeded the $35 limit. Also according to the audit, “mileage reimbursed for use of personal vehicles appeared to be excessive on some trips.”

* As of September 30, 2003, the Commission had yet to distribute nearly $35,000 in business privilege tax funds received from the state and owed to the Public Buildings, Roads, and Bridges Fund, the county’s municipalities, and the Hale Board of Education (which was to receive $20,973 of the funds). The funds had been received from the state in February.

* State law requires the Commission to publish “an itemized report” on its receipts and expenditures in a county newspaper twice yearly. The Commission did not publish any financial information, however, during that fiscal year.

* Late charges were occasionally assessed to the Commission when it failed to pay its bills on time.

* State law requires that “the purchase of services involving $7500 or more per year be made by open competitive bidding.” However, on May 27, 2003, the Commission canceled its existing contract for solid waste collection and awarded the contract to a second vendor two days later, without accepting bids for the contract. The audit asserts that although the requirement for public notification may be ignored in emergency situations, the requirement that bids be opened is not. The audit also noted that “the minutes and bid documents did not always indicate the reason that the bid was not awarded to the low bidder.”