The Rome-based Northwest Georgia Regional Commission missed the June 30 deadline for its 2011 fiscal year audit. But Executive Director Bill Steiner said it received an extension to July 31 and is on track to make the new cutoff.
“Our previous accounting system crashed and we had to rebuild it to get the balances,” he said. “We’re well into that now, and we’re not losing any federal money because of the extension.”
More than $30 million in taxpayer funding passes through the agency each year for community programs as diverse as Meals on Wheels, Alzheimer’s services, on-the-job training, youth apprenticeships and displaced worker education.
The situation has been complicated by a major turnover in the NWGRC finance department that included a new finance director as of April 2011, two firings and several resignations.
Trying to merge the different accounting systems used by the two regional development centers that now comprise the NWGRC — while dealing with disruptions from the expansion of their Jackson Hill offices — hasn’t made things easier, said Whitfield Commission Chairman Mike Babb, who was elected to chair the agency in January.
“It’s been a trial by fire, but we’re going to come out of this a much better organization,” Babb said. “We’re changing the way things are done so we have better internal controls to track where the money comes from and where it goes.”
Rumblings and grumblings
No waste, fraud or abuse was found during an outside audit that just looked at the Workforce Investment Act programs. But the overall accounting issues and loss of some longtime employees have sparked concerns from a number of NWGRC board members.
Babb noted that an employee complaint filed with the Georgia Department of Labor “is being looked into,” but Rome City Commissioner Kim Canada is among those who are getting antsy.
“Any time you have a significant number of people terminated out of a department during a short period of time, during a period of critical changeover, it’s a cause for concern,” Canada said. “And we’re still experiencing problems, with nobody stepping up to the plate.”
Floyd County Commissioner Garry Fricks was recently appointed to the NWGRC board’s personnel and finance committee, which went into a closed session during the board’s June meeting in Calhoun.
Fricks said Babb and the committee co-chairs are taking active roles in trying to sort out the issues that have been plaguing the agency for more than a year.
“Fortunately, we’re not ignoring anything,” he said. “We’re working to get past these issues and make sure we have the resources to ensure these scenarios won’t happen again.”
The audit extension, and eventual filing, will give the agency the breathing room it needs to complete its reorganization, Fricks said.
Steiner said he understands elected officials have responsibilities, and allegiences, to their constituents affected by the turmoil — but some of the problems are beyond the NWGRC control.
An example is a Friday memo from their outside audit consultant. Joanne Thurston warned that the state’s move of the WIA programs to the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development from the GDOL ran into “a complication,” and participants’ payments are going to be delayed a week.
“There will be some people unhappy about that,” Steiner noted.
For the problems they can control, new procedures are being drawn up to provide internal checks and balances.
Steiner said the old system called for the finance department to sign off on all the payments. The new policy will require the department handling each program to certify the federal standards are met.
“It’s a big transformation for the whole organization,” he said. “Thousands of checks go out of here. It’s very complicated, and somebody in the program needs to be in charge of checking that the clients and contractors are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Babb said the 2011 audit will have a corrective action plan designed to address accounting issues that he believes have been problematic for years. He said the 2012 audit, which is due at the end of the year, is expected to be clean.
The personnel turnover has resulted in a better-trained finance department, including four certified accountants, he said, and the extension shows the state has faith the NWGRC is on track.
“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train,” Babb said. “As a county commissioner, I can understand why a board member with people who aren’t receiving funds would be upset. But I’m looking at short-term pain for long-term gain.”
Other board members, however, said they still have a lot of unanswered questions about how the problems are being resolved and what’s to prevent them from happening again.
“Once I see the audit and am comfortable with the facts in it, then I can talk about if I’m satisfied,” Canada said.
Read more: RN-T.com - Funding crisis averted at NWGRC