EDITORIAL: A setback at City Hall

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By The Staff

The city’s auditing firm last week requested authority to launch a thorough investigation into the utilities department’s finances. Jeff McWhorter from Albuquerque-based Accounting & Consulting Group told the council that he found “anomalies” in billing records at the department.

He didn’t define what those problems were, but said he is particularly concerned with credits and waivers from November 2008 to February 2009. This almost certainly has something to do with credits given by then-Utilities Director George DuFour for Luna Community College, among others. DuFour has said that these credits were for overcharges. In other cases, he said, the utilities department waived fees for those who had utility disconnections in late 2008. That’s because a short-staffed billing department fell behind in opening the mail, which included payments from customers whose services were cut off.

McWhorter said he couldn’t get into specifics about his concerns with utility finances because the state auditor’s office has yet to release the city’s annual audit for fiscal year 2008.

Previously, the city administration has suggested that DuFour broke the law by approving credits and waivers without getting the signature of the city manager. But in information that the city presented to the state’s attorney general, its arguments against DuFour hinged on a 1992 policy that required the city manager’s approval for credits. But that policy was never enacted by the council and the city manager who drafted the policy back then doubted it would remain in effect legally.

McWhorter may have more information that suggests violations of procedures and possibly the law. But we won’t know until he spells out the details after his more thorough investigation, which is expected to last the next three to five weeks.

We can’t help but wonder if some of the financial problems were the result of a leaderless finance department last year. In June, a City Council majority fired then-Finance Director Ann Marie Gallegos, along with five other department directors. For nearly six months, the finance director’s position went unfilled. Such was the case with nearly the rest of the vacant posts; indeed, the city has yet to hire a permanent city clerk.

Even with all of these positions vacant, the city transferred billing responsibilities from the finance department to utilities last summer. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. But when it comes to internal controls, it may prove to be a disaster. These functions should be kept separate.

With all of this instability, it’s not terribly surprising that these problems are now coming to public light. The city was without more than half its management team for much of last year, and that is having major repercussions. Mayor Tony Marquez came to office last March promising to bring much-needed change to City Hall. But he lost an entire year of his two-year term to chaos that he, in large part, created.

With a new city manager, the mayor’s administration has the potential to move the city in the right direction. Unfortunately, the last year has been very damaging for City Hall.