It’s anybody’s guess whether the fiscal mess the city of Amsterdam appears to be in would have been less severe had it been using an appointed, qualified professional controller to keep its books over the years — as most municipalities do — rather than an elected official whose only qualification is being old enough to vote.
The preliminary indications — contained in a separate audit by the state comptroller’s office — certainly aren’t very promising. At least not according to 4th Ward Alderman David Dybas, and he’s a numbers guy. But even if, by some miracle, the city’s annual audit that Acting Controller David Mitchell is preparing to send to the state — four months late — isn’t so bad, the city already appears to have sustained significant economic damage just by virtue of its tardiness.
This isn’t like turning in a term paper a little late in school. As Friday’s Gazette story makes clear, the city has already suffered serious consequences because of the late audit: The federal government froze $2 million worth of grants for four separate capital projects; money for one of those projects had to be siphoned from a loan fund at the city’s Urban Renewal Agency reserved for economic development projects; Moody’s Investors Service has suspended the city’s credit rating, making it very difficult to borrow; and the city’s credibility has taken a huge hit.
Granted, there are some extenuating circumstances: Mitchell inherited a difficult task when Ron Wierzbicki died unexpectedly in December, after only being on the job himself for a year. And Wierzbicki had apparently inherited a mess from his predecessor, Heather Reynicke — an audit delayed by installation of new computer software. Still, at some point, one would think the city wouldn’t be where it is today if it had some consistent, professional management in the controller’s office instead of the revolving door of the past several years.
But in a referendum in June, voters soundly rejected a charter change — endorsed by Mayor Ann Thane — that would have gotten rid of the elected controller in favor of an appointed one, and adopted a more rational budget-making process to boot. A do-over at some point in the near future would be warranted.
As for the still-unfinished audit, it promises to be a doozie, if Dybas’ analysis about the separate audit recently conducted by the state comptroller is accurate: “I have read many, many audit reports. I have in my day written a few, trained a few auditors, taught accounting, edited a few audit reports. The worst one I have ever read was fantastic compared to this one.”