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Turnover keeps city's books in a muddle

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

Last year, the city was more than eight months late in filing its completed audit with the state.

With this year's deadline looming _ and the audit still not finished _ the city's Finance Department will have to prepare the audit for the 2000-01 fiscal year shorthanded.

Finance Director B.J. Coryer has announced his resignation, to be effective Friday, to take a similar job with Lake Alfred in Polk County. John Galloway, an accountant with the department, was fired on March 15 after writing a city check to the account of a recently deceased man whose estate he managed.

Partly because of these departures, the city will certainly miss the April 30 deadline for filing its audit for 2000-01 with the state Comptroller's Office. But it still will finish more quickly than last year, said City Manager Richard Anderson. He said he met with the city's auditor, Mary Beth Gary of Oliver & Company, on Friday afternoon to discuss the situation.

"When you lose your finance director and the person who was doing the most work on the audit, it will have an obvious impact on the completion date," Anderson said. "At this point, we anticipate being a minimum of 30 days late. On the flip side, that's way ahead of last year."

The situation makes it important to fill Coryer's job as quickly as possible, and the city has already begun advertising the position. Candidates should be certified public accountants with experience in public finance. The starting salary is between $43,000 and $49,000 per year.

"We kind of have to move expeditiously," said City Council member Joe Johnston III.

The city, however, may choose not to replace Galloway, who was hired to help the city complete its 1999-2000 audit. That report was due March 31, 2001, but was not completed until December.

Galloway was one of three accountants hired in the past 18 months to bolster the Finance Department staff and help bring the accounts up to date. Even with his and Coryer's departures, three accountants remain.

The problems with the 1999-2000 audit were traced to Coryer's predecessor, Lee Huffstutler, who left the city for a job in Temple Terrace in August 2000. Once Huffstutler had gone, no one in the department knew how to operate the software that compiles the city's various accounts _ payroll and utility bills, for example _ into the general ledger.

Also, Huffstutler had generally left the books in a mess, Gary said last summer: "What we're finding is very poor accounting, extremely disorganized records, inconsistent processing of transactions and inadequate documentation."

Huffstutler disagreed, pointing out that the city had never had such severe problems during his five years on the job.

Galloway, who was hired in April of last year, was responsible for cleaning up the mess, and, according to both his job evaluations and city officials, he did a good job.

"He was a skilled, hard worker. He did a lot of good things for us," Anderson said. "That's one reason I was so disappointed this happened."

Galloway had a master's degree in business administration from Saint Leo University in Pasco County, had served in the Air Force as a financial officer and worked at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

He wrote the check to the dead man's estate in January and was caught when he could not produce any invoices or other documents to show why the check had been written, Anderson said. The Brooksville Police Department later charged Galloway with forging the check and grand theft.

Anderson's letter notifying him of his firing said it was based on "your admission that you forged the signature of city officials on a check and converted the public funds for your benefit."

Galloway could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Coryer departed on better terms. At last week's meeting, City Council members congratulated him for his good work. And during the past year, none of the council members have blamed him for the delays in completing the audit.

Anderson did, however, extend his probationary period, which began when he was promoted in November 2000. It was supposed to end in May and instead lasted until December. Anderson said the extension was primarily due to the city's effort to refinance some bonds through the Florida League of Cities.

Coryer did not have experience in such work, Anderson said, and the deal with the League of Cities was scrapped partly because the city could not produce audited numbers for the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

The failed refinancing attempt demonstrated one reason why it is important for the city to file audits and have them approved by the state on time, Anderson said.

The state Division of Retirement had a similar requirement for the city to participate in its retirement funds. City firefighters and police officers would have lost out on nearly $200,000 in benefits had the completed audit not been submitted to the division before Jan. 1. The city beat the deadline by less than a month.

The city also had to prepare its budget for the 2001-02 fiscal year with unaudited figures.

"As a practical matter, (completing the audit) helps you both at budget time and in forecasting financial needs," Anderson said.

"The longer you delay, the more time you have to depend on unaudited numbers."

_ Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewittsptimes.com.

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