The Importance of Audits

A tragedy is unfolding in a small Chicago suburb as the town of Fox Lake tries to understand why a senior member of their police force staged his suicide to look like a murder. The lieutenant had been with the department for more than 30 years and was a respected officer as well as a youth leader. Unfortunately, at some point in the past he was put in charge of an Explorer program and its budget, which seemed to be the cause of the recent misery he unleashed.

The officer was concerned that an upcoming audit ordered by the new city manager would reveal years of petty embezzlement that probably totaled less than $50,000. Rather than face that possibility, he explored having the manager killed, planting cocaine in her desk, and, finally, killing himself. Part of the tragedy of this story is how easily it could have been prevented.

Every year at about this time, independent auditors arrive at the City of Albany to examine our financial records and certify that our books are accurate and that we are (or are not) following accepted accounting practices. These audits are required by law, but there is limited enforcement of the requirement; and some cities have gone for years without a completed audit. We take pride in routinely receiving clean audits and earning awards from the Government Finance Officers Association for the quality of our financial documents. We also follow a best practice by having an audit committee, made up of Councilors and the chair of our Budget Committee, meet with our auditors to receive a report that is not influenced by senior administrative staff.

Audits require effort and expertise, in addition to being somewhat expansive. They are worth it because they help maintain trust between citizens and the City. Cities that fail to complete this task every year run the risk of tragedies like the one in Illinois and countless others across the nation. I recently learned that the recorder I knew and liked in a city close to where I worked some years ago was being investigated for theft and misuse of public funds. She worked for the city for more than 40 years and was well-liked and respected. The allegations contend that she misused/embezzled about $43,000. Another administrator in the small town of Rufus was just arrested and accused of similar crimes.

My belief is that most people are basically honest, but that many can go astray if stealing is made too easy. We see it nearly every day in the form of soccer moms, PTA presidents, financial managers, and others who probably started by taking small loans from the funds they administered. Routine, reliable audits can help prevent these problems and spare individuals and communities great heartbreak.

We are fortunate here to have an outstanding finance department and competent auditors who help guarantee the quality of our work. I am sympathetic with the new administrator in Fox Lake who, by doing her job, unknowingly risked her life and uncovered a sad breach of faith. Our auditors will be working at City Hall during the next few weeks, and I plan to take some time to give them special thanks for the important work they do.