Jeff Altamari, a member of the Charter Review Commission, issued a white paper on their behalf. The paper focused on the need for an internal auditor for the city.
Mr. Altamari has an impressive resume. He identifies himself as a retired Fortune 500 executive financial officer and a graduate of Cornell University. He holds an M.S. degree in accounting. He was a member of the NYS Society of CPAs as well. In addition, he was Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s campaign treasurer.
On May 1st the Times Union published an article on his white paper. [Link To TU Article]. Under the provocative headline, “Former Financial Officer Says City Vulnerable To Fraud,” the reporter, Wendy Liberatore, wrote, “…Altamari warned that going without an independent professional internal auditor ‘opens the city to inefficiency, abuse and potential fraud.’”
So I was prompted to read his paper. Interestingly enough, in contrast to the TU story, the paper was a long and, to this reader, pretty dense treatise. Nothing of the excitement in the TU piece. Link To Paper It was just too abstract for me. I had trouble following it. With that in mind I contacted Mr. Altamari by email and he suggested I call him, which I did.
As some background, the New York State Comptroller is supposed to oversee the integrity of public institutions receiving New York money. I had gone to their website and looked at the last audit they did of Saratoga Springs. The audit was done for the period of 2009 to 2011 and was submitted to the city in 2013. The following excerpt begins the report:
A top priority of the Office of the State Comptroller is to help local government officials manage Government resources efficiently and effectively and, by so doing, provide accountability for tax dollars spent to support government operations. The Comptroller oversees the fiscal affairs of local governments statewide, as well as compliance with relevant statutes and observance of good business practices. This fiscal oversight is accomplished, in part, through our audits, which identify opportunities for improving operations and City Council governance. Audits also can identify strategies to reduce costs and to strengthen controls intended to safeguard local government assets.
The audit of which this was a part identified only a minor problem with the handling of city finances. I forwarded this to Mr. Altamari prior to our conversation. It seemed to me, at the time, that this answered many of the concerns expressed in his piece.
In our conversation Altamari noted that the audit was completed back in 2011 and that he felt this kind of auditing needed to be ongoing. He subsequently spoke to a representative from the Comptroller’s office who indicated that there is no routine auditing by their office. He was also told that having an independent internal audit function was a good idea. (see below).
Altamari recommends that the city have an audit committee. This is a common tool used by private corporations for the purpose of more effective oversight. I raised this with Michele Madigan. She explained that she currently goes over the audit the city does each year with the city attorney but it would probably benefit her to include some others to both assist her and provide even greater transparency.
I had trouble understanding fully what he meant by an internal audit. Currently the city identifies the Commissioner of Finance as the city’s internal auditor just as it identifies the Commissioner of Accounts as the city’s assessor. In fact, the role of carrying out the internal auditing function is carried out by Christine Gillmett-Brown who is the Director of Finance as similarly assessment is actually done by a member of John Franck’s staff.
Ms. Gillmett-Brown was originally hired by Ken Klotz as his deputy when he was elected Commissioner Finance in 1996. Interestingly she was a Republican whereas Klotz was a Democrat. Subsequently, under Commissioner of Finance Matt McCabe, a civil service position of Director of Finance was created for her. There were a number of reasons for this change. For one thing the work required to actually maintain the finances of the city along with preparing budgets, and overseeing the other duties of staff was just too much for one person, the Deputy. In addition the Deputy is not only a quasi political position but deputies leave when the Commissioner is defeated in an election or retires. The creation of the Director of Finance positon allowed for continuity. It also greatly benefitted the city because Ms. Gillmett-Brown was universally respected. She has served the city for decades.
In her role as the internal auditor, she investigates accusations of misuse of city funds. The only conflict of interest that would arise would be if she were asked to investigate the finance office.
In my conversation with Mr. Altamari and in his paper, he envisions a much broader role for the internal auditor. It would be pro-active in nature. It would involve issues of efficiency and waste as well as fraud.
In order to help me better understand the concept I asked him to lay out a scenario of how this would work. He offered the idea of the city hiring an outside consultant. This person would do an overall assessment of the city to identify areas of concern. He/she would submit a suggested plan to the city for a few areas that looked like they would benefit from a detailed analysis. This might be, for example, how the city handles inventory. What items should merit being inventoried? In what form should the inventory be maintained? Who should maintain the inventory? Etc. He also suggested that a comparison could be done regarding staffing with similar municipalities to asses productivity.
I expressed concern about the cost/benefit of this kind of work. Mr. Altamari was sure that it would more than pay for itself in greater efficiency and the elimination of waste.
We agreed that all this was considerably less dramatic than the headline of the Times Union suggested.
Most significantly, this kind of change was not dependent on charter change. No matter what happens with the charter, something like this could be enacted by the council.
He also expressed his concern about having a non-credentialed person overseeing the city’s finances (an elected commissioner-this would involve charter change).
In my conversation with Commissioner Madigan she pointed out that the technical part of the job is handled by Finance Director Gillmett-Brown who is civil service and has been doing this for seventeen years under Republicans and Democrats. The Commissioner and her Deputy’s job is to manage the staff and to do the budgets. Ms. Madigan pointed out that budgets are really policy documents. What the city decides to spend money on has to do with its priorities. It is her role, working with data from the Finance Director, to develop a budget that is the result of consensus building with the other Commissioners on the council.
I think I am being fair to Mr. Altamari to say that the threat he identified is not that he expects some calamitous financial scandal to erupt. The annual audit that exists is a reasonable vehicle to deal with major threats. On the other hand, the potential for on-going waste and petty theft can have a serious impact in the long run and he feels his suggestions would address this.
I think his ideas are thoughtful and worth considering. In my conversations with Commissioner Madigan she seemed to share the same assessment.
Mr. Altamari’s Email as Referenced Above
From: Jeffrey Altamari <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: May 2, 2017 at 3:36:46 PM EDT To: John Kaufmann <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Comparing the duties of an internal auditor with the role of the New York State Comptroller
Yesterday I put a call into the NYS Comptroller’s Office to make inquiry about the nature of municipal audits in NYS. Today, at 2:15p, my call was returned by a very helpful auditor from the Comptroller’s office with over ten years of experience. During our conversation he made the following points in response to my questions:
- Municipalities are NOT on a cycle for visits from Comptroller auditors. The decision on whom to audit could be triggered by:
- an irregularity noted in the annual financial statements filed with NYS that might warrant further follow-up
- an event brought to the Comptroller’s attention that might warrant immediate attention such as a large fraud or break-down in internal controls
- identification of a material risk factor in a municipality
- the fact that a municipality has not been audited for a long time
- The focus is usually very specific and focused on procedural controls. As an example, this auditor visited the Saratoga Springs FD a few years ago to see that they followed State procedures and controls. This was part of an audit initiative of several municipalities with regard to fire safety and State procedures. He was emphatic that no other examination of anything else in the City government occurred
- Our regional Comptroller’s office in Glens Falls looks at all municipal financial statements in its jurisdiction, but would only consider an audit initiative if it saw an irregularity based on an analytical review.
The gentleman I spoke with agreed that the examinations the Comptroller’s office perform, when they do visit a municipality, are akin to what an internal auditor might perform. But for any municipality these audits are so infrequent (our last in 2011 as noted previously) and highly specific when they are performed, that they should never be considered a substitute for a strong internal audit function. In fact, he stated, the Comptroller’s Office advises municipalities that they should always maintain a strong internal audit function as assurance for a robust internal control environment.