By Joel Hall
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) is expected to make several tough, financial decisions Tuesday night.
In addition to voting on whether to back economically challenged Southern Regional Medical Center, and create a new board finance committee, the commissioners are also expected to decide whether to terminate Ed Wall, who has served as the county's investment banker for more than 20 years.
In October, the board voted 3-2 to formalize a long-standing business arrangement with Wall, officially hiring him as the county's investment banker.
According to Wall, that decision has created a rift among commissioners who trust Wall's advice, and commissioners who trust the advice of Angela Jackson, the county's finance director.
"Almost every city and school system has somebody like me, who gives them expert advice, keeping their bond rating up to snuff, helping them know what the investment community is looking for," said Wall.
"I've given [the county] a lot of advice, a lot of help with their balance, a lot of help in preparing their SPLOST investment bonds, as I've done since 1988.
"I had a working relationship with Miss Jackson when she was first appointed finance director, but over time, she lost confidence in me," he said. "The finance director didn't want to deal with me, because I had not been approved by the whole board of commissioners. Over time, the board became split between who trusted my advice, and her advice."
Commissioner Wole Ralph, who has openly called for Wall's resignation, accuses Wall of attempting to "subvert the authority" of the finance director, and overstepping his boundaries as the county's bond underwriter.
"After consultation with several commissioners, I had asked for it [a vote on whether to keep him] to be put on the agenda," said Ralph. "His statements to the media were reckless, his refusal to work with the finance director were problematic, and there were some statements he made that simply weren't true. He indicated that we had a fund balance that was far lower than it really was. He said that he had been in contact with the finance director several times when he had not."
Wall said he called Jackson several times in an attempt to work with her, but could only get financial information by having Eldrin Bell, BOC chairman, request it from Jackson. He said he spotted "a red flag" when he noticed the county's reserves had an unbudgeted drop from $42 million to $20 million between fiscal years 2007 and 2008.
"Right now, every other county has huge budget deficits," said Wall. "They are laying off people and doing hiring freezes, but Clayton County hasn't done any of that. I just wanted to see the numbers.
"Based on the information that I reviewed, and what Eldrin Bell had requested, the fund balance fell from $42 million to $20 million between June 30, '07 and June 30, '08," he continued. "There became this disagreement with Miss Jackson and [Wole] Ralph that everything was just fine."
Ralph said Wall is overpaid, and that the safeguarding of the county's finances should be left in the hands of the finance director.
"I think we need to have an underwriter who will work with the finance director," said Ralph. "They should speak with one voice, so they can come before the board, and we can make the right decisions. We can't have someone hired, who attempts to subvert the authority of paid staff."
Bell said the resolution to terminate Wall "seems highly political" and believes Wall's services are valuable to the county.
"He has been serving the county," he said. "I sought to put it before [the board] to make it official. They voted to make it official. There were no hidden reasons other than his professional capabilities.
"It's unfortunate, because he's rendered a valued service to the county," Bell said. "He has a great reputation across the state, and I believe he could continue to serve us. It will be determined by the board of commissioners."
With a new member joining the BOC on Tuesday, the decision for the county to back a $40.2 million bond for Southern Regional Medical Center may very well swing in favor of the hospital.
Former Commissioner Virginia Gray, who voted against the bond measure last month, will be replaced by incoming Commissioner Gail Hambrick, who has expressed support for it.
"Until this time, I have not been privy to all of the information," Hambrick said on Monday. However, "I am leaning toward supporting the hospital."
Bell said unless he sees more safeguards in place to protect taxpayers, he will likely not change his decision to vote against the bond.
"I am fully in support of the hospital," said Bell. "I'm just scared to put $40 million of the taxpayers' money behind something that we have zero control over. Unless I see some responsible moves ... some change in the way they manage the hospital, I don't see a need for me to change my position."
Ralph said he will support the hospital. "I'm confident the hospital can repay the money, so I think the board needs to work with them to do that," he said.