Tensions ran high during the St. Francois County Commission meeting Tuesday morning.
Discussion over several topics led to a heated conversation over a travel expense form. Newly-elected and sworn in St. Francois County Auditor Bret Burgess had several items on Tuesday’s agenda that he felt were crucial to address.
Two of those items, the review and approval of a travel expense form and budget adjustment request form, were both eventually tabled until the next meeting pending review by the commission. But Burgess presented the commission with his reasoning on having the travel expense approved.
“This has become a hot topic and we are trying to make sure everyone is on the same page,” said Burgess. “This is not considered a policy. It’s an internal control measure that the auditor’s office uses for auditing purposes. This is a form that we want filled out and we want it to be uniform across the county (government). I was asked to bring some information in regards to this and to my surprise we found some documents from 2005 with the help of several other people.”
Being new to the office, Burgess didn’t know about this until Monday afternoon, but in 2005 the county commission adopted a policy regarding expense accounts. The policy explained how to prepare the form, gave the policies at the time and also included the form. Burgess said he believes at that time Commissioner Jim Henson found this form from another county and took it to the auditor making a recommendation for her to use it.
“So this form has been in place longer than I thought. We thought it was as new as 2010, turns out it is a lot older than that,” said Burgess. “The challenge we have in our office is we lack policies. We don’t have uniformity coming into our office. We have people filling out several different forms and the independent auditor talks to me and my staff about what we need in uniformity and something we can audit.”
The travel expense policy was last updated in 2010 for county business purposes. Burgess was suggesting and trying to convince the commission of the value from an auditing standpoint of taking the old form that Henson put into policy in 2005 and that half the office holders use and clean it up a bit.
“It’s basically the same form and because he allegedly received this document from another county, we don’t have it in an Excel spreadsheet,” said Burgess. “So we were able to get Greene County’s form, which is basically the same form and Treasurer Kerry Glore was able to make some modifications to it in her office since she has a great typesetting staff and we basically made the same form, but cleaner and put it on Excel. Now it can be emailed to everyone and used instead of handwritten.”
Associate Commissioner Patrick Mullins said that he had not seen the form before and hadn’t had a chance to look it over.
“I would like to table it so I could talk to the outside auditor,” said Mullins. “I would like to know about the time. What I do like about this sheet is that it has the meal receipts. Before I was having to take the meal receipts, put them in a copy machine, copy it and go into great detail explaining myself. My question is the time. Would that affect outside auditing purposes? Will it help and do you have to have the time?”
Mullins’ question dealt with the fact that the suggested mileage and expense form has a category for documenting the date and time of the expense being submitted for reimbursement.
Burgess responded that the outside auditor was present and was there to answer any questions that the commission might have.
Maloney Wright & Robbins Audit Manager Lori Crump said that the time category on the form would help answer any questions they might have on training times and other expenses.
“A lot of times people will go to trainings and they will leave on the weekend to start on a Monday,” said Crump. “They might return half a day on Thursday, so I think the time is relevant in a lot of cases. We have had an issue before with a client where the time away was questionable and we even called the people who put on the conference to find out the exact circumstances of the time, because the time that had been claimed did not seem appropriate. So I think the time is relevant on those, but most cases it won’t matter if they are just claiming a Walmart receipt that is local. It’s just for if they are out of town or if they are traveling for the job within the county.”
Crump was asked if the time is relevant in regard to road inspections by commissioners … when they leave and when they get back from road inspections.
“I would say be consistent across the board,” said Crump. “If it’s important and vital to one office to have accountability on the time and travel then you should do it county wide. Don’t segregate and say this county office is going to document the time to and from and this one’s not because it’s not relevant. Just have everyone do it across the board because you are looking for consistency. You’re looking for ways you can monitor, and so it’s hard to monitor when everybody is doing a different thing.”
Mullins asked if this is all relative to the county getting uniformity and doing some corrections of some independent audit findings.
Burgess said he thinks it is all part of the process and everything that they do to improve their auditing, their capabilities, their accountability and transparency all reflect positively on the county’s internal controls.
“From an audit perspective the more detailed the better. No matter what you’re documenting or what you are trying to do in your jobs,” said Crump. “So I don’t think by documenting the times it will take much time. You are filling out the form anyway on the days you have activity or transactions so just put the time down, I don’t think it will take that much more time to document that.”
Associate Commissioner Gay Wilkinson asked Burgess if he plans on reviewing and revising the travel policy.
Burgess said that he thinks that is the decision of the commission and he doesn’t personally have many objections to it.
“It’s five years old and wouldn’t it be normal or natural to think that we would review and amend it,” said Wilkinson. “Wouldn’t you think we ought to do that before we make the forms? Because I do.”
Burgess responded that he doesn’t think that is necessary because his office has a responsibility to be real clear and precise about what they are doing.
Wilkinson said he understood that, but he has that form already.
“Yes, and it’s not being used by everybody,” said Burgess. “We haven’t enforced it yet, but we want to do that and have the commission’s support and have a uniformity. If not we would like to know why you don’t.”
After the travel expense form was tabled to the following week, Burgess felt it would be relevant to talk about what had occurred the day before.
“Unfortunately, it was a public hearing yesterday when you invited me in and dictated that you were going to pull our agenda items off the agenda and then you marched over to the county clerk’s office to do that,” said Burgess. “I think we need to recognize there is an issue here and it’s not necessarily been an issue with any office holder or employee on this form other than one person and that is troubling to me.”
Burgess continued, “And to find out that yesterday you actually thought you had the power as a commissioner to remove agenda items that were properly submitted,” said Burgess. “Then thankfully, Commissioner Mullins made sure he got them back on there. I think that is relevant to this and I would like to make sure that the minutes are taken of that. Because that is a public meeting, right? We have two commissioners present and you make decisions without doing it in the public light.”
Wilkinson started to say that wasn’t a decision.
“You addressed very clearly yesterday you had troubles with reporting time. You didn’t think you ought to do that and you have, I’m sure, substantial mileage, right? So this is a concern for you apparently,” said Burgess.
“It is a concern to me, and I will reiterate what was spoken yesterday. There is witnesses in here to do that,” said Wilkinson. “That seemed like we have the cart before the horse here. Earlier we all agreed that we would focus on policies first and then come up with the forms. Rather than make a form, then make a policy to conform to the form. That is not what you are doing. You are throwing forms out and it’s whoa, whoa, whoa, hey let’s calm down. I’m not against any form change. I want it to be open, accurate and correct. But how many times will these forms change before we get the policy that will guide what we use? That was my question.”
“Gay, it’s very important to understand that a policy is dictated by you all,” said Burgess.
“No, you said you had the authority to do that,” responded Wilkinson.
“This is not a policy…” said Burgess.
“Yesterday in your conversation you said you had….” said Wilkinson.
“This is an internal control, we have the authority to enforce this because it’s internal control…” said Burgess. “It’s already installed so now we have the right to enforce it, we just haven’t done it yet. This has been installed since 2005.”
Wilkinson said Burgess had chosen to make this public. Burgess responded that Wilkinson made it public when he pulled him into a meeting.
Presiding Commissioner Harold Gallaher intervened asking both Burgess and Wilkinson to speak calmly and one at a time. It was a heated discussion that went back and forth with both officials talking over one another at times.
Wilkinson said that this all got out of hand from the original request. “We are changing everything two or three times and we are confusing everybody. We don’t want to do that,” said Wilkinson.
“I don’t know how you can say that. I have been here eight weeks and all I know is that we don’t have any policies in place,” said Burgess.
Wilkinson disagreed saying that they do have policies in place.
Burgess said that they have two or three in place and that they need them. He added that they have already received a letter from MoDOT and it is the second consecutive year that they have been issued concerning findings.
Burgess read the letter out loud, which states that they have received the single audit for St. Francois County for the year-ended December 31, 2013, prepared by Maloney, Wright & Robbins. The audit contained findings related to the county’s financial statements, which could affect future funding from MoDOT’s programs. (To read the forms from MoDOT see scanned copies at www.dailyjournalonline.com attached to this story.)
Read Thursday’s edition of Daily Journal for Part II of this story including more details and responses to issues debated during this meeting.
Editor’s note – Be watching for post-meeting responses from the involved parties in Part II of this story in Thursday’s print and online editions.
Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or email@example.com