When Jeff Hagar lifted the lid from Jefferson County’s crypt, did he know the horrors he’d find inside?
Regardless of what Hagar knew last month when he was hired to be the county’s first chief financial officer, he knows a lot more now. Or rather, to hearken back to the days of Donald Rumsfeld, he knows more about what he does not know.
For instance, he doesn’t know what the county’s true financial picture for the last two years looks like. That’s because Jefferson County still does not have audited financial statements for 2008 and 2009, as Hagar told the commissioners Wednesday. None of them were surprised.
It took more than a year for auditors from Warren, Averett, Kimbrough and Marino to sort through the grotesque mess of 2007. Who can imagine what 2008, when the county’s debt structure collapsed and the whole financial world fell into hell, will look like? And 2009?
The county has known for two years that it did not have up-to-date and audited financial reports, but only recently did the county begin seeking independent auditors to comb through its books. Commission President Bettye Fine Collins asked the state auditors to do the job for free. They said no. Having been underfunded themselves, they lack the resources to clean up such a mess.
Commissioner Collins insists the county is running as efficiently as possible, but without current financial reports, there’s just know way to know if that’s true. It’s not that different from trying to set your household budget with a three-year-old bank statement. Without knowing anything else, you don’t really know anything.
Hagar also doesn’t know what the county’s true financial picture for last month looked like. That’s because for all the money the county spent on its new accounting system, the county cannot generate monthly financial reports.
In fact, for as long as anyone can remember, the county hasn’t generated those reports. It’s not a technological problem. The City of Birmingham has been generating monthly reports for more than 40 years, and is, in fact, required to do so by law. (The exception being during the tenure of Mayor Larry Langford and Finance Director Steve Sayler, when the city did not produce so-called blue books for more than a year.) Those reports are ammunition for policy wonks, politicos, bean counters — all the people who are supposed to ensure government runs efficiently. The county hasn’t produced them, and currently can’t produce them.
What’s more, Hagar can’t know for sure what the county is doing this very minute. That’s because, despite the price tag of that same accounting system, it doesn’t provide real-time figures for the county’s revenues and expenses.
The good news is that Hagar recognizes these problems and has set a timetable for fixing them. The 2008 audit should take between four and six months, he told the commissioners. Within two months, the county should be able to produce monthly financial reports. Real-time reports will follow sometime after that.
The troubling thing is just how long the county went without any of these records. As Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weather man to tell which way the wind blows. Likewise, you don’t need a CFO to tell you that knowing your bank balance is important.