To the editor,
As a newly appointed commissioner in the Town of Pilot Mountain, I want to thank everyone that came to Monday’s meeting and our budget workshops over the past month. Getting the word out to the citizens of this town is my first priority and this is why I write this letter now.
As a certified public accountant (CPA) licensed in the state of North Carolina for 10 years, it deeply concerns me to read letters from the Local Government Commission (LGC), the financial statements, the audit reports, and see firsthand financial mistakes that have been made in this town in the past four years. All indicate we are in poor financial condition and we barely have enough in reserves to cover one month of expenses. The LGC is the State Treasurer, the expert in our State government. Could all these experts be wrong?
The LGC letters warn that we are in SERIOUS financial condition for years ending 2011 and 2012 citing we must take action as a Board. Our fund balance is not adequate to support operations, poor budgetary controls, expenditures made in excess of appropriations, pre-audit processes not functioning, and water and sewer rates not sustainable in its current form. For fiscal year ending June 30, 2011 we had over $300,000 decline in the fund balance! This was the turning point for the town and it appears to be related to The Pilot Center. For fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 the LGC again cited the same issues as above and stating the finance officer and his/her sureties are legally liable for unauthorized disbursements. For years ending 2013 and 2014 the letters were not marked serious anymore but showed concern and some improvement. When you look at the audited financial statements it clearly shows the only reason we did not get a serious letter in 2013 and 2014 was due to the town selling land to keep afloat. We are out of land to sell people. We are not charging the rates needed to pay the expenses.
We have thousands of dollars of errors being made. In my six months as commissioner we have found double billings on internet services, under billing on water bills, overpayments of Pilot Center expenses and more that I cannot discuss publicly.
I believe most of the financial problems we face today can be attributed to the fact that we have not had proper checks and balances. We have not hired a qualified finance officer. In 2012 we fired the finance officer for errors. Next we appointed a finance officer that was not qualified causing the town to pay over $9,000 in accounting fees over three years to fix bank reconciliations, set up reconciliation procedures and make journal entries. In these years, the town paid bank fees that were not theirs, paid expenses for the Pilot Center that were not the responsibility of the town’s, under billed water and sewer and in some cases didn’t bill people at all for the sewer fees.
We appointed a new finance officer at the end of 2014 that has now resigned. The finance officer resigned because she did not want the personal liability (yes that position as a signor for checks and grants and many other town documents is PERSONALLY liable). I don’t blame her and you shouldn’t either. We haven’t given raises to the town staff (police, utility nor admin) for six years. We provide below standard insurance in which you would have to have a serious illness before you could meet your deductible. We ask these hard working people to be personally liable? Would you?
According to NC General Statutes §159.24 we are required to appoint a finance officer. We have not done so. For the past three meetings the Board has been aware we do not have a finance officer and we are in violation of NC law. I am not comfortable with breaking the law and putting my CPA license at risk. For the proposed budget that will be voted on next Monday June 29th at 7pm, the Board in a split vote 2/2 with the mayor as tie-breaker has decided not to budget a finance officer position. Which in response, it was said that they would analyze this soon after budget and figure it out. One commissioner stated that “really all a finance officer does is sign checks”. We are out of compliance NOW. To say we will make a budget amendment makes me wonder where the money would come from. More cuts to police, to administrative, to utility department, to library? This is how we respond after years of poor decision making? We punish the people trying their best to provide a service to the citizens?
Our Manager has recommended some tough decisions for us. It is human nature to blame the messenger when we receive news we don’t want to hear. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we can see some of that is taking place here. Our Manager has made proposals that are politically difficult for us. It would have been easier for her personally and certainly more popular for her to just try to use smoke and mirrors to make the budget look better than it is. But she made the tough recommendations anyway and I respect that. She wasn’t here when the poor decisions were being made. She wasn’t here when we received all the notices from the LGC. In a year’s time, she has diligently found the errors and made action to correct them. She is the one fixing the problem. We could look back and see who to blame or we could move forward and do what’s right to fix it.
The State could take over this town. Is that what the citizens want? We want the State to set our taxes with no input from us?
I respect the hard working people that work for Pilot Mountain. The police were there for my family when we needed them. When we had people steal from us on two separate occasions. But the Board argues to cut the police when we could cut elsewhere? Using the tools of the School of Government of Chapel Hill, we are understaffed in the police department. We prioritize the library at full funding to cut the police? Books over safety? As one citizen pointed out in the meeting Monday the library provides free internet and air conditioning. And this is more important that safety?
A utility worker risked his life earlier this year to fix a line break in front of Wilco Hess when the town’s Backhoe failed him. His coworkers jumped in the hole and saved him. We argue whether to replace the equipment that is 29 years old and in OSHA violation that already has failed our staff? We direct the manager to pick between a backhoe and a mini excavator, still not providing our departments with the equipment they need. Almost all our equipment is failing. Each year we will have to fix or replace equipment for both the police and utility departments. We cannot continue to put these off.
It is not popular to raise taxes and I personally do not enjoy paying more but this town has expert after expert saying we are not charging enough to continue. We are selling land to mask the problem. We are borrowing from our general fund to cover our water and sewer fund. We as a Board will not agree on everything and that’s ok. Sharing different perspectives is one of the reasons we have Town Boards. But we should, out of respect to each other and the citizens we represent, at least try to find consensus or compromises we can all live with. This budget should be a turning point for the Town of Pilot Mountain. It was said Monday that it took years to get in this financial position; it will take years to get out of it. I say this is not a diet plan. This is a government and we can get out of this situation and move this town in the right direction, today (Not tomorrow, not next year, not after elections, today) We have to move in the right direction so we can apply for grants for help. No one is going to help us until we help ourselves. Even though we may see things differently, this staff and the Board are a team, and we are working for the same citizens. When adopting something as important as this budget, we should not settle on a split vote with the Mayor breaking a tie. The best solutions come from compromise and teamwork, not tie-breakers.