Audit delay prompts questions

Published 9:44 am Thursday, October 19, 2017

JACKSON – Though the meeting agenda was short, plenty of words were still exchanged. The bulk of the Northampton County Board of Commissioners regular meeting held here Monday night was devoted to citizen and board member comments addressing various issues, the most prominent of which was county finances.

Board Chairman Robert Carter advised citizens before the public comment portion of the meeting about the stipulations on speaking, in case they had not previously attended a meeting. Citizen comments are limited to three minutes.

“Should you have questions of the Board, you will receive a subsequent oral or written response from this Board or county staff,” Carter further explained. “The Board will not respond or otherwise engage in dialogue with you during your allotted time.”

Much of the discussion pertained to the still incomplete audit for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Dot Vick, retired county finance officer, stepped up to the podium to address concerns about the audit. She referenced an article from the News Herald in July which stated the reasons—as explained by the County Manager—for the delayed audit included the auditors quitting on short notice and a reconciliation error in the general ledger which needed outside help to correct.

“I’m here for one reason and one reason only,” Vick began, “that is to state the facts as I know them.”

She addressed the matter of the former auditors first, saying “They [the previous auditors] presented the 2015 audit on March 7, 2016. They notified Northampton County by memo dated March 22 that they would not be doing the 2016 audit.”

Vick continued by saying she did not want to embarrass anyone, and her only goal was to simply state facts.

“You had 67 budget amendments,” she explained, noting the total amount was not unusual. “You had 31 of those budget amendments brought to this Board for approval after the close of fiscal year 2016.”

The fiscal year in question for the audit began on July 1, 2015 and ended on June 30, 2016.

Vick cited information about budget amendments which took place as late as October 2016 and December 2016. The effected departments had to operate in the red until those amendments took place. The October amendment reduced the general fund balance by approximately $1,073,000, Vick stated.

The former finance officer’s next point concerned county revenue, which was delayed in posting for several months while an employee was out on medical leave. Before Vick could continue presenting her information, however, Chairman Carter pointed out that her three allotted minutes had expired.

“I can come back,” Vick said, adding she had other points she would make at a later meeting.

In a statement after the conclusion of the commissioner’s meeting to the News Herald, Vick confirmed a few other points on what affected the continuing audit process.

“Halifax County [local government personnel] came over and did posting, I knew that from former employees and I have it confirmed by email. They did come over, and then when they could no longer make the ends meet, that’s when they called in this CPA firm at a rate of $30,000 for a first contract. They met that and then renewed,” she explained briefly.

“I don’t know what she saw,” Vick said, referring to the reconcilement error, before continuing by summing up her information. “But this is where I was going: for the 42 years I worked here, we had six major CPA firms that were hired by the county. You probably had 25 people with CPA behind their name. They saw these every year. They had no problem with it. Now what’s the big deal?”

Tony Burnette also went to the podium for his allotted three minutes to speak during the meeting, where he began by thanking Vick for her years of service to the county and for sharing the information about the audit process.

“I came before this Board last month and I had the same question that I continue to bring before this Board, and that is dealing with the county budget,” he stated.

Burnette had previously asked the Board during the September 18 meeting for an update concerning the status of the past due audit as well as an update on courthouse upgrades. At that meeting, Chairman Carter explained that Burnette would receive a written response to his questions.

With his written response in hand, Burnette explained he was not satisfied with the brief reply he received, feeling like he was being cut off from communicating with county officials.

“I got to first say that anytime a government body cuts itself off from its people by not responding, then we got a problem where we can’t communicate to our elected officials,” he said.

Burnette’s letter stated in a few short sentences, which he read to the people in attendance, that the audit was not yet complete and the courthouse project had been put on hold until the audit was completed.

“My next question I’d like to ask is,” Burnette continued, “how much has this Board spent on the audit? How much money have we spent as Northampton County towards this audit? Did we have people from Halifax County coming over here working on the audit?”

Burnette also briefly mentioned at the end of his comments the people living on Jasper Jones Road were still asking for help to improve the condition of the unpaved road which floods badly during storm conditions.

Once Burnette had concluded his comment, Carter replied by saying “your questions will receive a written response from this Board.”

In a statement given to the News Herald after the conclusion of the meeting, Burnette said, “I’m concerned with our county elected officials with them not being transparent about the audit. Instead of them responding to you in a general meeting, they’re responding by mail.”

At the end of each meeting, the commissioners also have an opportunity to share their own comments for the citizens in attendance if they choose to do so.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner thanked everyone for attending the Monday evening meeting.

“There are a lot of things that we know we can do better,” Faulkner said. “We’re like any other body of government. We are about the people, we are for the people, and we do listen to you.”

She urged citizens with concerns to continue bringing them to the Board.

“We can’t fix everything, but we know we have a lot of things we have to prioritize,” she said in conclusion before thanking the citizens again.

Commissioner Fannie Greene took her moment to address the matter of fixing the poor condition of Jasper Jones Road. A group of approximately eight residents of that road, located off Highway 46 near Gaston, were in attendance.

“There is absolutely no reason why I would not help Jasper Jones Road if there was means to do that,” she said. “I cannot break the law to do that. We do not have the funds for that at this time.”

Commissioner Chester Deloatch had no comment.

Making the longest comment, Commissioner Charles Tyner spoke to several different points.

“I came to do what’s best for Northampton County,” he said after thanking citizens for their input. “The finances certainly trouble me, like it troubles everybody else. I want you to know we’re working real hard, this Board is, to come to a conclusion of an audit. We’re hoping very soon we will get that audit.”

Tyner mentioned a few times that he could not do anything about things that happened before he was a commissioner, and said he did not know anything about Halifax County assisting in the audit work.

Focusing instead on the future, Tyner said, “if you want to reduce taxes, then there’s got to be some changes. And changes hurt. So get ready because next year we want to do all we can to assure that every dollar spent is spent wisely.”

Tyner also asked for patience from the people living on Jasper Jones Road.

“Mrs. Greene and I have been working real hard trying to see about some state money coming to help with us on that road.”

By the end of his comments, Tyner said he welcomed people to continue attending the Board meetings and also welcomed calls on concerns.

“Work with us,” he implored. “Just give us a little while, and I promise you, we’re gonna make things better.”

Chairman Carter concluded the meeting by explaining the Board had recently met to work on prioritizing current issues, and they had also compiled a list of positives. He asked the rest of the Board if they wanted to release that information to the public, and they all agreed. Carter then directed County Manager Kimberly Turner to publish the information so that citizens will be able to access it.

According to that information released to the public on Wednesday, the Commissioners set goals and established priorities for moving forward to make “Northampton County again a great place to raise families, profits, and expectations.”

Their top priority is to decrease taxes, and they will seek to reduce taxes by two cents in 2019.

“They hope to accomplish this goal by increasing collection efforts, earmarking new revenue, and keeping expenditures within budgeted plans,” read the bulletin.

Other goals cited were finding a grant writer to help accomplish goals, expanding infrastructure like water/sewer and housing, and developing more recreational activities throughout the county.