By Joel Hall
Members of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) are looking for answers after Chairman Eldrin Bell revealed this week that the county's reserve funds have taken a $22 million dive from the last fiscal year.
On Tuesday, Bell told the board that the county no longer enjoys the $42.8 million cushion it had in FY 2007, nor the $43 million it had set aside in FY 2006. Recent findings revealed that the county has spent well into its FY 2008 reserves, leaving only $20 million behind.
Over half of the $22 million spent was on capital expenditures, and $3.8 million of it was spent on settling lawsuits. The $20 million left over meets state recommendations of what a county should have in reserve. However, an additional $7 million the county is required by law to set aside for its pension fund may leave it with only $13 million.
A December 2007 report from KPMG LLP, an Atlanta-based auditing firm, revealed a "control deficiency" in the county's finance department, which "does not allow management or employees, in the normal course of performing their assigned functions, to prevent or detect misstatements on a timely basis."
The report added that the deficiency "adversely affects the entity's ability to initiate, authorize, record, process, or report financial data reliably."
Bell said the findings were "shocking" and cited a break down of communication between the BOC and the county finance department as a possible reason for the overspending. He believes the county should take immediate steps to have better oversight of its savings.
"Wall Street says that you should keep at least 10 percent of your budget in reserves," said Bell. "Our budget director should be giving our board monthly updates. I'm proposing that we bring in a consultant to the finance department ... because we can't trust the figures that we are getting now."
Commissioner Wole Ralph said that in June, when the board approved a FY 2009 budget of $168.6 million, Bell made "a commitment not to raise taxes." In order to increase services without raising taxes, the BOC has been spending money from its savings, Ralph said.
"What the county has done is that it has developed a 'rainy-day' fund," said Ralph. "As we looked at expanding government services, we chose to spend from that fund rather than raise taxes.
"When you look at other counties, they have gaping holes in their budget," Ralph continued. "Even at the $20 million, we are well ahead of the state's recommendation for the [reserve] fund balance. Right now, we are talking about discomfort, more than a crisis."
While Ralph does not believe the decreased reserve balance will lead to cutbacks or layoffs, he suggested that the BOC create an oversight committee, so board members can stay on top of expenditures.
"I think there needs to be a committee to give more information to the commissioners, because you don't have the $42 million cushion anymore," said Ralph. "Two board members could be on that committee and keep the rest of us on track with where those finances are. [The reserve balance] demonstrates a need to get the BOC more involved with the finances throughout the entire year."
Clayton County Finance Director Angela Jackson did not respond to calls seeking comment made on Wednesday.