Don’t look now, but the completion date for the audit into Killeen’s finances has been moved back — again.
Last week, the City Council authorized the Houston-based audit firm of McConnell & Jones to push the presentation date back to the last Tuesday in August, with the firm citing the need to process an “extensive data submission” by the city.
That’s nearly a full month later than the previously announced completion date of July 31.
After the council voted 6-1 to approve the new timeline last week, Councilman Gregory Johnson wasn’t happy with the decision, calling his “no” vote a vote of no confidence in the process as a whole, which is costing the city nearly $400,000.
In casting his protest vote, Johnson noted his constituents were demanding results, and that a delay wouldn’t sit well with them.
Indeed, many Killeen residents have been up in arms since last June, when then-Interim City Manager Ann Farris told council members the city was facing an $8 million shortfall.
Though the council subsequently bridged most of that funding gap, the city spending practices and lack of transparency surrounding the initial deficit led to the public’s call for a forensic audit.
Now that the audit is nearing completion, it’s unclear whether it will reveal where the money went or even if auditors have asked the right questions to find out.
Johnson said last week he voted for the audit to improve transparency with the public, but since a May 2 update that revealed several significant findings to date, transparency in the audit process has been sorely lacking.
As such, Johnson had good reason to question both the timing and content of the city’s document dump.
It’s unclear whether the mass of data was information that had been requested at an earlier date and was just recently released, or if the audit firm had uncovered something that necessitated additional data late in the process.
Whatever, the case, the latest move has the effect of delaying the process, which should have been completed by now, under the original agreement.
As one who has been a participant in the audit process since it was formally authorized in March, Johnson has a right to label the extension request “political games.” It’s understandable that he was frustrated that auditors were coming to the council so late in the game with their request for more time, and that their initial request was made in a closed-door meeting.
Certainly, auditors would be justified in seeking more time if they were going the extra mile to interview people outside the current administration to get the answers they need.
But there’s little evidence that they are doing so.
As of last week, the auditors had interviewed only one previous city finance director who was employed during the period covered by the audit. Considering Killeen has had four finance directors in a span of five years, McConnell & Jones is missing a valuable opportunity to put the city’s previous financial transactions and policies into historical context.
It’s also unclear whether the auditors are following up on potential leads contained in previous external city audits — some of which showed patterns of misapplication of funds and inaccurate reporting of financial information for grants. The results of those audits have been reported in this newspaper, and those annual reports are no doubt available to the auditors — but are they incorporating them into their findings? More importantly, are they talking to the investigators who produced those earlier reports?
It’s hard to say exactly what McConnell & Jones’ auditors have uncovered or the extent of the firm’s research, but to date the audit has the feel of an investigation that is less than what was advertised.
Nevertheless, City Manager Ron Olson seems to be satisfied with the progress the auditors are making, and he commented last week that he would likely concur with whatever findings McConnell & Jones produced.
Olson initially said he would stay out of the audit process, but last week he said he had to get more involved — saying he needed to be able to provide information and cooperate.
He also cited an unclear focus on the part of the council in his decision to jump in.
On the surface, it would appear Olson is trying to influence the process, but he insists that is not the case, noting that he’s simply trying to provide the auditors with clarity.
But the city manager is not entirely accurate when he claims he has “no dog in this hunt,” as he did last week.
Even though Olson didn’t come to Killeen until early this year — well after the period being investigated by the audit — he does stand to be impacted by its findings.
If the auditors uncover material flaws in the way the city deals with contractors, handles grant money or records its transactions, it could have an impact on how the city does business moving forward. It could also affect budget projections.
More importantly, an audit report containing significant operational deficiencies could reflect poorly on the city’s image, potentially influencing prospective businesses considering locating here.
But with the city’s credibility on the line — both with the city’s residents and those looking on from beyond the city limits — image should be the least of the council’s concerns.
Ultimately, the most important thing the council and city administrators should be demanding is a thorough, well-sourced, instructive audit that can point the city down the path to more efficient, more accountable financial management.
Anything short of that amounts to a misuse of taxpayers’ money.
And isn’t that exactly what McConnell & Jones is here to investigate?