“The Madame Gu of Portsmouth Politics.”
In a letter dated 16 July, 2012, Charles Barga of the state auditor’s regional office, in Athens, notified Portsmouth city auditor Trent Williams that the city’s latest state audit, for 2011, revealed that the city had continued to violate statutes regulating accounting practices. Barga reminded Williams that “Ohio Revised Code Section 5705.10H states that “monies paid into a fund must be used only for the purposes for which such a fund has been established.” He also pointed out that in Portsmouth “monies [are] being paid into funds and subsequently used contrary to their restricted purposes.” Williams has not been obeying those restrictions for some time. Through a procedure that he puzzlingly calls “charge-offs,” Williams has been making what Barga calls “unallowable allocations,” that is he has been taking money from one fund illegally to pay the expenses of another. Why? Apparently in order to help pay the salaries and raises for the mayor, the city auditor, the city solicitor, and other city employees, including the fire and police department employees. As a result, even during Portsmouth’s chronic periods of financial shortfalls, the Portsmouth city auditor has used unallowable allocations to help pay salaries and provide raises, using funds, that is, “contrary to their restricted purposes.”
Williams calls the transfers he makes “charge-offs.” He considers them allowable but the state auditor considers at least some of them unallowable. I have looked in vain in many dictionaries to find a definition of charge-off in the sense that Williams uses that term. What hard copy and online dictionaries do say is that a charge-off is an uncollectable or bad debt. For example, Wikipedia defines charge-off as “the declaration by a creditor (usually a credit card account) that an amount of debt is unlikely to be collected.” Merriam-Webster traces this sense of the word as far back as 1892. Why does Williams misuse the word? Instead of calling an unaccountable allocation an unaccountable allocation, he calls it a “charge-off,” perhaps to fool taxpayers. He appears to be misusing the word to try to cover up his shady accounting practices. He may have fooled the public, but he has not fooled the state auditor. In the city’s 23 July response to Barga’s 16 July letter, which has Williams name at the bottom, the word “charge-off” is used thirteen times, but Barga had not used it even once in his letter to the city. I am assured by a Certified Public Accountant that “charge-off,” in the sense that Williams uses it, is not a word that is part of the accounting lexicon, except when it refers to an uncollectable debt. Williams should stop using the word “charge-off” and say what he apparently means—namely “indirect costs” or what Barga calls “allocation adjustments.” Indirect costs or allocation adjustments are legal, provided those who resort to them prove they are warranted, which too often, according to Barga, is not the case in Williams’ bookkeeping. In Williams’ bookkeeping, “charge-offs” are the means by which he attempts to get around the restrictions placed upon the city’s spending practices by Ohio Revised Code Section 5705.10H.
Crux of the Matter
The crux of the matter, the point in dispute between the state auditor and Williams, is the city’s abuse of “charge-offs.” The city has used funds designated for sewers, water, street maintenance, etc. to pay salaries and benefits of other departmental employees. The result is that now many of those funds are in deficit positions and the infrastructure, for which the funds were supposed to be used, are falling into disrepair. City water, sewer, and sanitation fees have increased steadily over the years to cover ever increasing salaries and benefits. In 2010, over $1,000,000 was transferred from the water fund to cover salaries, overtime, and benefits of fire department personnel. Only the salaries and benefits of the water and sewer departments should be paid from the Water and Sewer Funds with a reasonable charge by the General Fund for administrative expenses. The city has used the charge-off methodology to justify the increase in water and sewer fees for years by charging fire department salaries and benefits to the Water Fund and then passing the cost to the residents in the form of higher water and sewer fees.
The amount of the charge-offs could not be justified by Williams, other than to say he has always done it that way. The first sentence of the city’s letter (23 July 2012) in response to Barga states, “The City of Portsmouth has used a system of payroll ‘charge-offs’ historically for as far back as at least 1993,” or about the time Williams became auditor, although it may be that cooking the books actually began when the notorious Tom Bihl was city auditor. Regardless of when the illegal practice actually began, precedent is the main argument the city uses to justify these “charge-offs.” Not only in the first sentence, but on page two of the city’s reply, the claim is made that “The City [in 2011] continued to use the same method [charge-offs] consistent with the past many years . . .” In the third and final page of the city’s letter, the claim is again made that “. . . the City has used a consistent methodology over many years” [emphases added]. In other words, the city has been doing it this way for so long (and getting away with it!) so Williams should be granted some slack and not be required to change his methods immediately. But doing something wrong, unethical, or illegal for twenty or more years doesn’t make it right or mean we have to put up with it any longer, does it?
Poisoning the Money Supply
In the New York Times (8 Aug. 2012) there was a report on the trial of Madame Gu Kailaithe, the wife of a prominent Chinese Communist official. She was convicted of poisoning a British businessman associate. Because she told the court there were extenuating circumstances—she claimed the British businessman had made threats against her son—she is expected to be spared the death penalty. The son is a student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, so her claim seems specious. To my way of thinking, Trent Williams is the Madame Gu of Portsmouth politics. He is the poisonous auditor of Portsmouth’s finances. He feels he should be granted a pardon and given more time to rectify any mistakes and balance the books. Will the state auditor buy his argument?
First Ward councilman Kevin Johnson recently circulated an email reminding voters that the City ended Fiscal Year 2011 with a deficit of $1.4 million, which the state auditor responded to by putting the city on Fiscal Watch. The deficit projection for FY2012 is even more, $1,418,719. This is just the General Fund and does not include deficits in other funds such as Water and Sewer. At the beginning of 2012, the sewer fund had a $600,000 deficit, so, as usual, crooked politicians in the Municipal Building city raised our sewer fees 10% to help cover the deficit.
The state auditor can place financially troubled municipalities in three fiscal categories: Caution, Watch, and Emergency. Portsmouth was in Fiscal Caution last year, and now, even after the city’s income taxes were increased it has moved on to the next most serious condition—Fiscal Watch. If the state auditor does not buy the convoluted excuses and veiled threat of financial catastrophe in the city’s letter of 23 July, Portsmouth may be declared in Fiscal Emergency. But there could be a silver lining if that happens. If the city is placed in Fiscal Emergency, the State will take over the finances of the city as it took over the finances of Scioto County, where there reportedly has been financial improvement. If what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, then what’s good for the county should be good for the county seat, Portsmouth.
I have compared Williams to Madame Gu. A saying attributed to Confucius is, “Never seek illicit wealth.” Another could be, “Never resort to charge-off chicanery to hoodwink taxpayers.”