Local Government and Hamilton County and Westfield and Regional News and Government & Economic Development and Government

State audit findings sting Westfield

June 8, 2009

The mayor of Westfield says the city's rapid growth and small staff are to blame for a series of accounting problems raised in a State Board of Accounts audit of the Hamilton County community.

Among the problems: The town collected various service fees not authorized by local ordinances; paid $1,184 in late fees and finance charges for credit cards during 2007 in violation of state standards; used credit cards to pay tuition expenses for Westfield employees in violation of the town's own credit card policy; and failed to keep a log showing who had access to city credit cards.

Westfield has addressed all the concerns raised in the audit, which covered 2007, Mayor Andrew Cook said. He said Westfield had been doing many of the same things for years without hearing from the State Board of Accounts. He welcomes the scrutiny, though, particularly since Westfield just changed from a town to a city at the beginning of 2008.

"Everything they pointed out were things you need to do a much better job of as a city," said Cook, who served on the Westfield city council for a year before taking over as its first mayor. "I want consistency and scrutiny. If we're doing something wrong, tell us."

The audit, released last month, also says records presented to the state were "incomplete and not reflective" of activity in the town's payroll fund, and that the city did not identify the source of $313,000 reported in that fund at the end of 2007. The state had raised the same concern in a previous audit.

"We're not saying there's any money missing," said Charles Pride, who supervises audits of cities, towns and libraries for the State Board of Accounts. "The fund just hasn't been reconciled; someone needs to thoroughly analyze that account and figure out why it's out of balance by so much."

Cook said the problems in the payroll records surfaced because taxes withheld from employees weren't sent to the federal government correctly. That problem has been fixed, he said.

"Before, no one person was answerable to the report," he said. "Now there is."

Most of the issues raised in the audit can be cleaned up rather easily, Pride said. But if Westfield is caught paying credit-card interest or fees with public money again, the state would require the responsible person to reimburse the city. The state's guidelines for accounting procedures are the same for cities and towns, so Westfield's transition to a city won't change its need to address the concerns raised by the State Board of Accounts, said Scott Schuster, a partner in the locally based accounting firm Katz Sapper & Miller.

Part of the city's next audit, now under way, will be to check up on progress from the last one. But future audits also may include checkups on more complicated financing deals: Westfield officials are working on plans for two transformational projects that would cost more than $110 million in public funds.

A plan to develop a so-called Grand Junction of trails at the center of a new downtown Westfield would run at least $50 million, and a planned youth sports complex with a 4,000-seat multipurpose stadium would cost $60 million.

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