Divisions among Effingham County commissioners resurfaced Tuesday night over discussions on next year’s audit.
By a 3-2 vote, commissioners chose to keep their contract with the current auditing firm, Caines, Hodges and Company, but not before three board members weighed in against approving the letter of engagement.
Chairman Wendall Kessler, who does not vote unless there is a tie, implored commissioners to choose another auditing firm, in light of the atmosphere that surrounded the most recent audit.
“I have serious concerns about the independency of the audit,” he said. “Because of so much controversy that surrounds this audit and so much controversy over how this information was presented, I think the bigger question is why would this board engage the same firm to do another year? Would it not be prudent in the eyes of the citizens to draw the line and get another firm that would not be tainted in any way to do the audit?”
Commissioner Steve Mason made a motion not to approve the engagement letter and solicit bids from firms that answered requests for proposals last year and other interested parties. He and Commissioner Reggie Loper voted in favor of the motion, but commissioners Forrest Floyd, Vera Jones and Phil Kieffer voted against it. Floyd offered a counter motion to approve the engagement letter for the 2014 audit with Caines, Hodges and Company.
“I have confidence in Mr. Caines,” he said of firm partner Donald Caines.
Floyd, Jones and Kieffer voted in favor of the motion, with Loper and Mason opposing it.
“Surprise, surprise,” Mason said.
Push for re-bid
Caines, Hodges and Company won the bid last year, quoting the county a price of $48,000 to perform the audit. But some commissioners questioned how long it took to complete the last audit — it was due in December 2012 and presented to commissioners this June — and what it included that had not been part of previous audits.
“Staff and commissioners had input they should not have had,” Loper said. “There was information that was incorrect. There were personal conclusions that were not factual, and there was no attempt to confirm the truth.
“I am not comfortable trusting the county’s business to Mr. Caines.”
Mason suggested the county reach out to firms that submitted RFPs last year and see if they would be interested in being part of a new bid.
“I have a real problem with using Mr. Caines again, in light of the past audit being six months late with no real explanation as to why,” he said. “It will do us and the county justice to re-bid this and look at some options. In the interest of fairness and for the good of the county, I can’t see how anybody would be against bidding this out.”
County finance director Joanna Wright said the firm was undergoing a partnership split at the time, and the county also was involved in how to divide local option sales tax proceeds with the cities.
“The only answer I have gotten when I asked why it was late, ‘there was a problem with me and my partner, we were dissolving the partnership,’” Kessler related. “’Joanna had things going on, and we decided not to throw each other under the bus.’ That’s not good enough for me.”
Wright said new requests for proposals could be completed in four weeks, pushing back the start of the audit, and the oncoming holidays could be a problem in getting it done before the end of the year.
Kessler also said the audit extension was asked for and approved without board approval, but Wright said she had discussed the need for an extension with then-county administrator David Crawley, and it was her belief that had been made known to the commissioners.
“We would never have done that if we had not believed that information had been communicated to this board,” she said.
Crawley said Thursday he did not recall requesting the auditor to file an extension nor approving the filing of extension with the state.
Mason also said he asked Caines why the most recent audit reviewed material not included in previous audits.
“His response was, ‘sometimes, it’s good to have another set of eyes look at it,’ in reference to his son helping him do a preponderance of the audit,” Mason said. “With that same answer he gave us, I suggest we bid this out, look at cost difference and make a decision based on that.
“I think it would be prudent, because we had such a dramatic shift from year to year in our audit results and findings, that I would like to see someone else come up with an agreement how we do it and how we have done it,” Mason continued. “There can’t be that much difference in two years, from the same company, just because the principal’s son did the preponderance of the work.”
Approximately eight accounting firms submitted requests for proposals last year when the contract was put out again. Wright said such things as total hours and hours partners are expected to spend on the audit are figured.
“All in all, I think it did pan out, with all things being considered, to being the lowest bid,” Jones said.
Concerns from officials, others
Kessler also said other elected officials have expressed their concerns to him about how the audit was done last year, though he did not name them during the meeting.
“At least one has told me that if this is particular firm is engaged, the only way they will work with them is through a superior court judge issuing an order that makes them do it,” Kessler said.
The chairman also said at least one elected official said they weren’t contacted about the audit of their department until four weeks before the audit was delivered to commissioners. Wright said she did not believe that was correct and that there is work done prior to the auditors’ visit to individual offices.
Kessler, though, said he believes the firm broke the contract by not performing the audit in the prescribed time. He also said there were issues of legality brought up that were not addressed to the county attorney for fear he “would become belligerent.”
County attorney Eric Gotwalt said he was puzzled by the statement, which Kessler said was told to him by the auditor.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever had a cross word or a cross email exchange with Mr. Caines,” Gotwalt said.
Gotwalt said he asked Caines if there were going to be any material findings or weaknesses, and Caines replied to Gotwalt, “he’d rather not say,” the attorney told commissioners.
“It’s made it difficult for our firm to give advice on some of these findings that later appeared in the audit,” Gotwalt added. “To this day, I don’t know what some of the factual underpinnings are, particularly related to the related party transactions. It’s hard for our firm to advise the board what to do if I don’t have that information. It certainly would have been helpful, from my perspective.”
Eli Vandiver, a county employee, also urged commissioners not to approve the letter of engagement.
“We don’t need an audit firm that’s this close,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing my county with a lot of negative publicity. We need to step back.”
Floyd said he was willing to discuss his support of Caines and the audit with his constituents.
“Anybody who lives in District 1 and wants to talk to me about it, they’ve got my number,” he said.