By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – Metro Auditor Mark Swann is a nice guy. But if your hand is in the till, he’s going to catch you playing fast and loose with city funds.
Swann has new powers to look into the financial operations of all Metro departments. On April 4, the city council voted unanimously to grant him that authority and Mayor Megan Barry signed the resolution the next day.
But things haven’t changed much in the auditor’s office. It’s pretty much business as usual: too much to do and not enough time and money to do everything that needs doing.
Swann has 18 audits planned for 2017; six are leftovers from last year. His team of ten auditors will also respond to four requests that came into the department’s hotline.
A lanky soft-spoken man, Swann is like the husband who spends his weekends on “Honey-do” projects instead of playing golf. When the city council makes a request for audit services, it’s “Honey, do this.” When it’s a Metro Department head or the Mayor’s office, it’s “Honey do that.”
Swann is good-natured about it. He has been city auditor for ten years. It took him his first term of eight years to audit all 63 Metro departments. Now that he has carte blanche to ferret out abuse, misuse, or waste anywhere in Metro government, Swann can demand to see the books of any of the city’s 68 boards and commissions, too.
“It’s fun,” he says.
One item that will be audited is the Autumn Hills Assisted Living contract; another will be General Hospital. Both Autumn Hills and the General Hospital ran into trouble for not paying their bills on time.
Metro’s Water Department will have its payroll and storm water system reviewed. Swann’s accounting sleuths may do a hotel occupancy tax audit or look into Metro schools use of credit cards.
Metro’s audits are not meant to be adversarial and usually they aren’t. Last year Swann audited the Human Relations Commission and discovered improper use of credit cards. The audit draft report included findings as well as suggested corrections and he sent it to the commission for comment. There is usually a back and forth before an audit is finished.
Mel Fowler-Greene, Executive Director of Human Relations Commission, told the Tribune that she came to the job from the nonprofit world. She said there was no manual to tell her how to run her office when she arrived in February 2015. Greene responded to the audit and acknowledged she sometimes used a credit card when she should have gone through the Purchasing Department and has stopped doing that.
Not all of Swann’s audits go so smoothly. In 2010 the judges in Nashville’s state courts objected to an audit of their operations. Swann found widespread irregularities in the courts’ payroll and accounting practices as well as in hiring. Court employees’ workdays were not tracked so sick days and vacation days were not verified.
Paychecks were drawn from accounts reserved for non-salary expenditures.
That and other irregularities resulted in a $1.5 million shortfall in 2009 and another $203,000 in 2010. Metro ponied up the extra money for the courts’ mistakes.
In a random sample of court transactions, Swann found money spent and charged to the wrong account 53 percent of the time. There were no written quotes on purchases without contracts 40 percent of the time. There were repeated purchases from a single vendor without a contract totaling $438,000 over a span of seven years.
Swann said a successful and thorough audit relies on the cooperation of the agency or department he investigates. He didn’t get that from Nashville judges but managed to identify many problems and made several recommendations that the judges roundly rejected.
“We agreed to disagree,” Swann recalled recently. Sometimes, people ask for Swann’s help.
Peter Fontaine, the new Finance Director of the Health Department, wants to identify what information technology his department has and determine if it’s being used efficiently and properly. Swann said that 100-hour assessment may be jobbed out.
Swann’s staff will only get to half of the items on his to-do list this year.
Twelve audits won’t be performed because they would take about 8,000 man-hours Swann just doesn’t have.
Swann wants to audit Metro’s Finance Department but he probably won’t do it this year.
See City Hall Shining No Light on Metro Contracts, Page 6A