CFO, COO want to get the house in town in order

On the day James Brigham was interviewed for Columbus’ CFO position, he already had four competing offers on the table.

Each of the four was for more money than the $100,000 annual salary offered by Columbus, but none of these jobs offered the challenges he wanted.

Columbus’ work, on the other hand, is quite lengthy on challenges.

“The week I came here in person for a board interview, I had already made a commitment that if I had the chance, I would come here,” Brigham said. “The challenge is what intrigues me. I like to go through and solve the puzzle.

“I probably wouldn’t have considered this opportunity if someone had told me things were going to be fine and people were happy with everything,” he added. “The opportunity that presented itself to me was, ‘Please come in here and put this puzzle together. “”

Brigham has been reporting to his second-floor City Hall office for about a week, bolstering an administration that has essentially worked without a full-time senior executive for much of the year. On the first floor is the office of his counterpart, Operations Manager Jammie Garrett, whose tenure with the city exceeds Brigham’s by just a month.

The two earn $100,000 a year in their roles, the highest amount the city has ever paid for those positions. The two face daunting tasks, mostly to sort out the town’s foggy finances, but both agree that the situation at City Hall isn’t as bad as people might think.

“What I’ve noticed in the month I’ve been here is that there’s a lot of backlash (department heads) and I don’t think people know how badly they get away with it. come out with the resources they have,” Garrett says. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be critical. But maybe if people understood, they would be less critical. The city must work on its messages and dispel the misunderstandings that exist. »

tick boxes

Garrett was hired Feb. 4 and is the city’s first full-time COO since David Armstrong retired June 30. Brigham was hired on March 23, replacing Deliah Vaughn, who left in September for a job at West Point.

Both roles had been filled by interim part-time volunteers.

The city has had a rocky road over the past few years, especially in the CFO’s office. Former CFO Milton Rawle was arrested in August 2020 and charged with embezzling around $290,000. In September 2021, a $1.5 million clerical error torpedoed the planned budget in the 11th hour, leading to the abandonment of a plan for salary increases and unforeseen budget cuts. The city also faces records that have not been aligned with actual bank statements and does not know how much money is in its accounts or even how those accounts are managed.

Brigham, who worked for years in the corporate world before earning a late-life master’s degree and transitioning into academia, not only knew what he was signing up for, he saw it. a selling point.

Garrett, who called entering the city “every day is chaos,” said Mayor Keith Gaskin and council were candid about that likelihood in their interviews.

“All of them tried to warn me (what I was getting into),” she said. “I had three interviews and I felt like they were trying to scare me to death. They said it was really bad, we don’t want you to come in without having a clear picture of what’s going on. happens.

She has felt some relief since Brigham came on board.

“When (Brigham) was hired, it was like somebody took a ton of bricks and moved them around,” Garrett said. “He’s extremely nice, he’s a natural teacher and I’m sure there are things I’ll learn from him.

Both Brigham and Garrett said the city’s financial uncertainty and the conditions that created it must be resolved before anything else can happen.

“My top priority is to work with the CFO and get our finances in order,” Garrett said. “When I say get them in order, I mean know exactly where we are. I need to have that before I work with department heads to make sure they have what they need.

The first step in that process, Brigham said, is to complete the late audit for fiscal year 2020 that is still ongoing due to the city reporting incomplete or inaccurate information, or simply not handing over the information. things to listeners in a timely manner. Earlier audits, by the firm Watkins, Ward and Stafford, cited the city for poor implementation of financial controls after the embezzlement issue was discovered, as well as poor record keeping in city departments. The 2020 audit, when completed, should highlight that record keeping has remained poor, ranging from incomplete physical inventories to court fines that are not properly reported to unbudgeted and excessive spending.

“(The audit) will list significant financial control issues, and then I’ll check them off that list and make sure the internal controls are there,” Brigham said. “I know the issues you’ve had here, and I want to make sure this process is closed and these things don’t happen again.”

Some of the city’s problems were simply caused by shoddy work, he said.

“People don’t check the boxes,” Brigham said. “To my knowledge (the $1.5 million clerical error) was just a number that was on one of the back spreadsheets that was not presented. It’s just negligence.

That being said, Brigham praised the work done by interim CFOs Mike Bernsen and Linda Holliman.

“People who were temps who worked here for a while seem to have done a better job than people think,” he said. “I’m not sure (their numbers) are accurate, but they were trying to accomplish things. There is money in the bank and we are reconciling the bank accounts.

Brigham said while the 2021 audit will also be late, it won’t be such a Herculean task to get it out.

“It’s scheduled for June 30 and will miss that deadline,” he said. “But we’ll be a lot closer because I’m already starting to work on those reconciliations. Hopefully for that year we can just get things back complete and accurate and auditors can do more auditing and less (rebuilding).

The dissemination of reliable information is essential for the public to regain confidence in the CFO’s office, Brigham said, although he did not comment on how long it would take to get there.

“You have to earn trust and you have to earn it,” he said. “The challenge is to make sure that we develop trust with the mayor and council, and that the figures we give them for their decision-making are accurate. I want citizens to feel they can trust these numbers when they read them in the newspapers. They may not always like what they see, but (the numbers) will be correct.

Work together

Gaskin has repeatedly pushed for a forensic audit of the city’s finances — a task that could well cost in the six figures — to identify and fix ongoing problems. The council repeatedly voted against the measure, although the mayor continued to publicly defend one.

Brigham, who is certified in forensic accounting, said he doesn’t think a forensic audit is needed now.

“It’s kind of funny, because a forensic auditor coming now would just tell you your house is on fire,” he said. “We all know the house is on fire. The best thing to do now is to organize it and at some point have someone come and say, “Where did things go wrong? Why did this happen? If someone wanted a formal (legal) audit, that’s not something I would object to, but at the moment that would be overkill.

Gaskin said he wants to work with Brigham and Garrett to make the city’s finances as transparent as possible.

“Other cities have clear records available where citizens can go to find all the information they need about their city,” Gaskin said. “I want the three of us to work on a similar document for Columbus. My #1 goal is full transparency so people know how we’re using their money.

Ward 4 Councilor Pierre Beard, who was part of the hiring committee during the search for the CFO and COO, said he was also ready to get the real money information from the city.

“Let us know what we have and where the money is,” Beard said. “Get those bank accounts reconciled so we can stop voting on things blindly. I am delighted to know that we are about to start receiving these reports.

Beard said the COO is well placed as an intermediary between the mayor and council.

“She really stepped in and started building a relationship between the council and the mayor,” Beard said. “He really doesn’t want to talk to us because of the open meeting law, and she can be a liaison and pass information (to us.)”

Jones was on the same page when it came to numbers.

“The main thing is to provide us with the financial reports so that we can make informed decisions,” he said. “We need to know exactly where we are and what projects we need to push forward and what we need to put off.”

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