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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Big Bend Sentinel Editors' Analysis of County Accounting, Compliance Issues 7/30/2015

Overall general coverage of prior negative County Audits has not been as extensive as this year's coverage, and this year, the Big Bend Sentinel published an editorial opinion piece with some additional information and analysis. It was written by publishers Rosario and Robert Halpern, who had access to a lot of information, including information directly from the Sheriff himself and Chief Deputy Joel Nunez that I have not personally seen.
The article is pretty long and is pretty good about presenting the realities of the difficulties a Sheriff;s Office has in patrolling a large County with limited resources. Points are made several times with regard to shortages of manpower, the need for cooperation between entities, and the problems with communication between some courthouse officials and the Sheriff's Office.

The conclusion of the article lines up with a point I not only agreed with for a long time, but used as justification for what I saw as minor issues; issues similar to what I have been discussing here. Be it a reprimand from an accountant, a conflict of interest, some dealings that may not be kosher but don't look to be directly self-serving, and the like. The plus side of the monies received and retained in the form of assets, wages, equipment or services outweighed, in my mind, the minor problems that may or may not be intentional or even matter in the long term.
Ironically, the first time I was forced to weigh the balance of value between these two sides of the coin was back when the City of Marfa began to have problems with the Stonegarden grants we were receiving through the (now defunct) City of Marfa Police. Over the course of a year or two, these grants and the paperwork involved in dealing with them became such an issue that the Council was forced to make decisions beyond just discontinuing the grants. The monies received paid for extra hours for officers, equipment, fuel and more- all things our municipal police force needed and we, as a city, could not afford at the time. For so long Council members were grateful for the needed resources and what they brought to our city and police force.
At some point, City Administrator James R. Mustard and Chief J.D. Wilbourn could no longer communicate, as there was a breach of trust between them. As City Administrator, Mustard was the direct supervisor of all City of Marfa employees, including Chief Wilbourn. Chief Wilbourn was no longer taking orders from him and a lot of the problems, without going into greater detail, were related to Homeland Security Grant bookkeeping. At a certain point, Council opted to disband the police department and contract with Presidio County and the Sheriff's Office for city policing duties. The result was a direct cost savings to the city and a relief from having to keep track of grants and all the potential liability associated with the administration.
At this point in time, I no longer really looked at the Stonegarden grants as "free money", but still thought the extra money flowing into our community was well worth whatever efforts it took the get the money. I was also grateful that any problems we might have with that in the future were going to be the problems of the County, and not the City.

After sitting in on County Commissioners Court meetings over the last three plus years, I have changed my mind about this. The County, despite the claims of the Sheriff's Office, has had problems with the administration and reimbursements of these grants for at least the last three years, causing serious cash flow issues. This is not new. However, I understand the Sentinel's take on it. I guess if the question is along the lines of what kind of potential problems are worth whatever price to get federal dollars, then that's the question. To me, I think that our County government, no matter who is to blame, has demonstrated over and over again that we are not qualified to administer these types of programs with the leadership we have had. It's time for a new standard of quality, integrity and achievement. We now have enough vehicles to do whatever we want for the next 5-10 years. We now have enough policing equipment that is rarely or never used to last us just as long. We can auction off all kinds of unneeded assets to raise more capital if need be.; we can reclaim gifted vehicles and offer them first for bid to governmental agencies for cash (permitted under Local Govt Code) if we are concerned about other local entities losing something we own but they need.  It's time for us to stop relying on the handouts and pay enough deputies (and pay them enough) to patrol the County with or without grants. It's time for our County government to step up in this next budget cycle and work as a team to create a sustainable budget model for the future. It's time to eliminate the gray areas between agencies, employees, money and accountability by making inter-governmental agreements more specific and detailed, with oversight, communication and public transparency paramount. This can all be done. This may well disturb some people's perception of autonomy and "the way things have always been done and there was never a problem." Hopefully, some of the things stated this week in Commissioners Court and the paper are true and will stick. This, I think, would solve any problems outside of personal issues. Personal issues will take time, maturity and a rebuilding of trust and respect to heal, and that's a harder goal. Let's shoot for the first and work on the second once we reach the first goal for the health of the County.


On to items referenced in the article that I believe can be expounded on...

The first reference in the article to Operation Stonegarden does not mention the very integral fact that this Federal Grant program is strictly for reimbursement of overtime. This is not mentioned or alluded to anywhere in this article, and this simple fact is the basis for the Auditor's accusations of fraudulent activity.

Purchases for items other than wages such as vehicles, equipment, training and fuel are to facilitate the achievement of hours leading to and including overtime. Documentation must be kept on all of this.

In paragraph 9 the paper states the County is considering an outside investigation into the grant situation. In paragraph 10, the Sheriff says they have done nothing wrong and "welcome an investigation" During the County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday the 28th the Sheriff said he has already asked the Texas Rangers and FBI to investigate. I am looking forward to everyone presumably being cleared by several investigations that have been requested by the Sheriff, at least according to the record.

In paragraph 11, Sheriff Dominguez says he decided this week not to accept the approved Stonegarden Grant for the next fiscal year. This grant would obviously need the support of the Sheriff, but can only be approved and accepted by Commissioners Court, as the County's General Fund and credit rating hold the liability for any grant deficiencies, and not the Sheriff himself.

In paragraph 13 the Sheriff says that "We are severing ties between the County and PISD completely." I think this is a good idea for the health of the County. It's a smart reactive move to this situation.

In paragraph 14 Deputy Nunez says, "As of today, we lost all reserves, I told them they are no longer obligated to work for free. PISD will no longer work for Stonegarden, because of the conflicts perceived, conflicts and allegations seen by the public as negative. Now it's up to Commissioners Court to make up with local tax dollars what has been in the past with grant funds."
The line about working for free is a flag here (see last blog post on Commissioners Court meeting 7/28) but I agree that in order to prevent an issue or questioning here the County needs to step up and manage the situation in real terms and dollars. Period. If an inter-local needs to be created to achieve that, put in place specifications for accountability, communication and transparency.

In paragraph 17, Auditor Painter is quoted as saying his allegations of fraudulent behavior are based solely on the Stonegarden grant compliance issues. In paragraph 18, Nunez and PISD business manager Raquel Baeza state the officers in question, despite earlier documents indicating otherwise, are being paid as subcontractors. It's my understanding that contract labor, is by definition, unable to receive overtime. The grant reimbursements are strictly limited to overtime hours.
Allusions to labor performed by these officers is made, with grant reimbursement applied for and paid through the grant. Still no mention of overtime or under whose employment overtime hours could be justified.

The paper, in paragraph 19, discusses faulty grant administration by the County over the years. I am in agreement with this, as, I believe, the County Commissioners are. The remedy for this is/was the hiring of OMB officer Katie Sanchez in late last year, following her loss to Frances Garcia for the Treasurer position. Patty Roach is the Commissioners Court internal auditor and has been authorized by Commissioners Court to do "whatever it takes" to get information, and fix problems with grants and with County finances in general. The office of OMB and Commissioners Court have agreed to work with Auditor Painter on a quarterly basis to stay on top of all potential issues. It has been deemed imperative by both the external and internal auditors that all departments cooperate in order for the County as a whole to succeed in correcting our issues. Ms. Sanchez is in charge of administering the grants and she, since she came on board, has had extreme resistance to cooperation from the Sheriff's Office. This is a current issue.

In paragraphs 21 and 22  Mr. Nunez goes on to state that the County officials should have brought up any problems long before this moment, as they are the checks and balances here. He continues with an overview of how this was all beneficial to the citizens and how he saw only good things happening here with the influx of federal funds replacing local funds and all the additions in assets, wages and equipment. I can see this perception; I have also attended County Commissioners Court meeting regularly for over three years and the grant funding, administration and opacity of the running of the operations have been consistently addressed (without any repercussions) by Commissioners Court. None of these problems are actually new. this time we have a more comprehensive audit that calls it out, and we also finally have some public discussion and knowledge of the problems. I firmly believe that there would be no attention to this outside of Commissioners Court had not a few outspoken elected officials, including myself, addressing this in a public forum.

Paragraphs 24 and 25 discuss in direct terms the impact of this blog, which hopefully has helped you, the reader, understand at least some of the dense issues that are actually important here. Blaming the messenger is a classic tactic, but thanks to the internet nobody is now limited to the length of a letter to the editor.

In response to my demand that a financially strapped County with few resources should sell off any unnecessary items of any substantial value and not continue to hold then and/or pay for maintenance and insurance on them, the Sheriff and Deputy Nunez provided a list of vehicles that one or both of them had "gifted" to other governmental officials or agencies. Commissioners Court should, in any case, ever, bar none, determine what happens with County property. I personally have no complaint with intra-County transfers, although I sincerely question the need for County Commissioners to have their own trucks instead of access to a motor pool with a check-out system for accountability, transparency and money savings concerns. However, transferring vehicles over to PISD police, PISD maintenance dept, The City of Presidio's Water Works Dept and the Presidio Fire Dept without Commissioners Court approval or even knowledge is ridiculous. yes, no monies exchanged hands, yes, these agencies work for a common interest. But I think the public should ask itself if this kind of patronage, outside of any oversight, could result in an increased political influence for the individuals doing the gifting of substantial items not belonging to them.

Paragraph 32 reiterates the statements made by Deputy Nunez at the Commissioners Court meeting on Tues the 28th that he believes that the vehicles, if auctioned off by the County, would not be as much of a benefit to the County residents as a whole as they are now with himself and the Sheriff being the arbiter of where and to whom these assets should be disbursed to. Simply put, he and the Sheriff know better how to help the citizens using surplus County property than Commissioners Court and the Judge would, so they did it themselves without informing Commissioners Court.





Paragraph 33 speaks for itself. Deputy Nunez states, "It's amazing how miscommunication can lead to such an impact in our communities."




Paragraph 34 references some payroll invoices that are still outstanding and are in need of payment by the County. Auditor Painter is questioning two of the invoices. The invoices are not specifically referred to, but in the prior post I referenced a source in Presidio who said that some officers had not been paid for presumably reimbursable Stonegarden work past the point that the County was participating i the program. These officers wound up not being paid for some time worked, and that probably is what Deputy Nunez is referencing in his earlier statement that officers are "no longer obligated to work for free." The grants were not renewed some time ago due to these severe problems, but the hours overseen by Nunez for some workers were reportedly not eliminated. I expect for the Treasurer and Deputy Nunez to eventually clarify whatever these issues may be if the impasse continues...
"Presidio ISD has absorbed almost $38,000." I would expect the trustees to publish the reasons for subsidizing these funds in the interest of transparency.



That's about all I have to say about the article, which can be found in whole at www.bigbendnow.com

I now disagree with the idea that we need this "free" money so much that we are willing to compromise the integrity of multiple agencies. we have put some of our longest serving employees, such as Deputy Nunez and Sheriff Dominguez in a position of defending themselves and having to remake the structure of their offices, according to them. I agree with them.

I look forward to not only the surely impending investigations by multiple agencies to clear the names of all elected officials and employees and I look forward to the citizens of Presidio County being more active in demanding a better County government, from top to bottom. Because we can and should. Pressure your Commissioner and all elected officials to respond to concerns and be LEADERS.

DB


















1 comment:

ninotchka said...

I had so many questions after reading the editorial in the Sentinel so I thank you for providing a detailed analysis of the situation. As a newcomer to Marfa, I was naturally concerned about the county accounting issues as described in the Sentinel. I hope you will continue providing your thoughts to complement the Sentinel's reporting, and I would be personally interesting in reading other views as well. Nina Fantl