Chester looks to clear up finances by spring

CHESTER -- Chester's finances could be in order by the spring.

At least, that's what city leaders hope.

After months of frustration over financial problems -- including backlogged audits, a finance director's resignation and a delayed budget -- city leaders have a rough timeline of when they can expect to have their financial records in order.

During Monday night's finance committee meeting, accountant Bill Floyd, who's working on the stalled audits, told council members he plans to have his work on the 2003-2004 audit completed by mid-October.

Preparations for the other audits should be finished in two-month increments, he said. But these dates are only estimates because of the disorganization of some records.

The prolonged process of fixing the city's financial problems is wearing on some council members.

"It's a long, drawn-out procedure," said City Councilwoman Linda Tinker, who chairs the finance committee. "But I just kind of wish things could speed up. ... We just need to see actual numbers. We need to know where we've been and where we're going."

Tinker doesn't fault city staff for the financial situation. But without seeing accurate financial records, she said, the council doesn't know what city departments are doing with their money.

"It kind of leaves the council in limbo," she said.

The city is operating on last year's budget because of the lack of updated figures. Leaders hope to vote on a new budget in mid-October.

In recent months, the city's finances have prompted council debates about how to handle the money problems.

In December, Montgomery & Yarbrough, the firm that had been handling the city's overdue audits, presented its findings through a letter to council members. The auditors found 26 problems that delayed their work, including missing bank statements and city credit card payments that didn't have matching receipts.

The firm suspended its services in March, saying it could not complete the audits until the city finished compiling its financial records for the years the audits cover.

In February, the city's finance director, Harriett Tillinger, resigned. That same month, the council voted to ask the state's Budget and Control Board, Attorney General's Office, Ethics Commission, Department of Revenue and State Law Enforcement Division to review the problems listed by the auditors.

The Budget and Control Board and the attorney general have deferred requests to SLED, which has agreed to investigate the city's finances to determine whether any criminal activity has taken place. The S.C. Department of Revenue began auditing the city's payroll records in April.

Apart from those issues, the makeup of the council changed in May with the election of Mayor Mitch Foster and Councilman Alan Clack. The council hired another finance director in June.

Although the road to clear records remains long, City Councilwoman Betty Bagley said patience is important.

"These CPAs are doing a wonderful job because ... the books, everything, was left in a mess," she said. "I want to give them the time because I want it done right. And I'm not one to push. I'm not a financial person. But I think they're working as hard as they can."

Tinker echoed those thoughts, saying after the first audit is ready in October, the process should move quickly.

Then, she added: "I hope."