By WILLIAM PAINE
For The Patriot
This week’s meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors began with three presentations but was later dominated with commentary regarding a county audit performed by an accounting firm that found some need for improvement in the county’s bookkeeping.
The first presentation was a Resolution of Recognition for John V. Travis, who recently resigned his post as Supervisor because he had moved from the Massie District to his new home in the Draper District. The resolution mentioned the many boards, authorities and commissions that Travis has served on, along with a brief history of his career. The Supervisors passed this resolution of appreciation unanimously.
Next, Executive Director of the Agency on Aging, Tina King, gave a detailed ten-minute presentation regarding this institution. As King explained, the Agency on aging supports and enhances the lives of older adults and those with disabilities through a variety of services, which are paid for primarily through governmental support, including funds from Pulaski County.
For the next presentation, Terrie Sternberg of Go Pulaski County gave the supervisors an overview of the work that this volunteer organization does on an annual basis. Go Pulaski County started seven years ago and has since completed 80 projects with the help of over 700 local volunteers. Projects include painting the Central Gym, trash cleanup and assisting families in need of handiwork around their residences. Last year, volunteers for Go Pulaski County did significant work on the grounds of the Calfee Community Center.
There was only one Public Hearing at Monday’s meeting which dealt with a request from Monique Hartley to rezone her property. Hartley’s representative asked the board to approve the rezoning of her Case Knife Road property from Low Density Residential to Agricultural, specifically so she could keep bees. The Planning Commission was favorable to this change and the supervisors unanimously approved this rezoning.
The second half of the meeting was dominated by talk of an audit report performed by an independent accounting firm, which listed several improvements to be made regarding the county’s bookkeeping. Issues listed in the accountant’s audit included a large inter-entity balance between Pulaski County and the Economic Development Authority (EDA), a voided payroll entry that was mistakenly posted twice but later reconciled, some minor discrepancies involving Purchase Orders and the failure of the county to present its financial statements to the state auditor by the December 15th deadline. The county’s financial statement was submitted only by March of this year.
Interestingly, Kevin Siers, the Superintendent of Pulaski County Schools, decided to post this report on the PCPS website and Facebook page, though the school system was mentioned only briefly in regard to forms being filled incorrectly by the school system.
Hazel Wines, who posted Siers letter on the Talk of the Town Facebook page, was the first to speak when the citizen comment section of the meeting took place.
“I’m here to address your lack of transparency,” said Wines, who insisted that all Board of Supervisor’s meetings be livestreamed starting immediately. Wines went on to say that the county’s accounts were overdrawn several times throughout the year and that this invited fraud. “We want clear communication; we want transparency from this board,” Wines insisted. “This is something we’ve asked over and over. It is not hard to stream a public meeting.”
Next, Ashley Bowman approached the microphone saying, “A few weeks ago, when the audit came out, there were many citizens on the Facebook group the Talk to the Town that voiced extreme concern about the results of that audit.”
Bowman then noted that County Administrator Jonathan Sweet rebutted concerns about the county’s finances by writing a column in both local newspapers.
“First of all, Mr. Sweet, you are not Pulaski County, we are Pulaski County,” said Bowman.
This prompted Laura Walters, Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, to pound her gavel and warn Bowman against making personal attacks against Sweet.
Sweet countered by saying that he would gladly withstand any personal attacks from any citizen if need be. Bowman questioned Sweet’s right to write a column for any local paper on county time.
“It’s unpalatable and laughable that a county employee … would do this and I hope the board holds him accountable,” said Bowman. “We have been disappointed in the management and lack of transparency for several years now.”
Both Ms. Wines and Ms. Bowman have served as members of the PCPS Equity Advisory Board.
“I have never heard such a bunch of hogwash,” said E.W. Harless in reference to statements made by Wines and Bowman. Harless expressed his belief that attacks against County Administrator Sweet were personal in nature. Though Harless expressed concerns that “the (financial) books need to be closed on time,” he followed by saying that Sweet was the “best county Administrator for the taxpayers of Pulaski County.”
After the public commentary, County Administrator Sweet spoke about the audit saying that he requested additional clarification from the accounting firm regarding their findings.
The response letter written by CPA/Auditor, Emily Viers, of Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates, was then read aloud by Sweet and included the following.
“We did not find evidence of fraud or embezzlement based on the procedures that were performed. Audit adjustments are not uncommon and I think was included in nearly all of my County, City and Town reports. The standards have become so complex that there is difficulty in keeping up with the ever-changing guidance.”
The letter went on to say that the delay in submitting the financial records to Richmond was a direct result of the county transitioning from Bright to Munis accounting software. The letter also mentioned how COVID related issues made late submissions of county records “fairly common across the Commonwealth … None of the items noted are indicative of fraud.”
After this, the board voted to Absolve a loan given to the EDA by the county in accordance with the original auditor’s report.
“Everything they said to do in the audit, we’ve done it,” said Sweet following the meeting.
Before the meeting concluded, the Supervisors unanimously voted for a Resolution of Recognition for the Pulaski County High School 2021-2022 Track Team, which won the Virginia High School League Class 4A State Championship Title on June 4 of this year under coach Sirak Ogbagabir.
The resolution reads in part, “Jeremiah “J.J.” Gulley won the High Jump, clearing the 6’5” mark; junior Diego Turner won the Shot Put with a 54’ 10” throw; and the 4 x 100 Meter Relay Team of Quemaar Porter, Armonte Hill-Lewis, Jeremiah Gulley and John Lyman earned gold with their impressive time of forty-one seconds.”
Supervisor remarks at the end of the meeting dealt almost exclusively with those who have been highly critical of the county’s finances.
“We started this meeting with a group of people that were very positive and trying to improve our county …I am all for accountability, but it would be amazing what we could accomplish if we could just work together,” said Superintendent Jeffrey Reeves.
Supervisor Dirk Compton mentioned that he had tried to text County Administrator Sweet on an unrelated matter last Friday night but did not receive an answer for several hours. Sweet explained that he was at his daughter’s birthday party and had been incommunicado.
“And I thought that’s really nice, family first,” said Compton. “On Facebook these people are beating him up and I’m thinking, ‘What if they actually spent the same time with their family instead of spending their time running him down?”
Supervisor Adam Hall reminded everyone in the room that the Fine Arts Center’s Rhythm and Ribs festival will occur Saturday August 13 and invited everyone to attend.
After the meeting, Board Chair Laura Walters was asked if she still had confidence in Pulaski County’s finance department and the county administrator.
“Absolutely,” Walters responded. “There’s no question. The problem is that people went out and jumped on something not understanding it and instead of asking questions, they just went on Facebook. We just got the audit back and before we had a chance to review it or address it or anything else, it went out and that’s part of the reason I think for the confusion.”
Does Andy McCready, known to be a stickler for finances, still have confidence in the county’s finances?
“I have a great deal of confidence,” McCready responded. “We see these issues come up. I’ve served on dozens of boards. Anytime you have an in-depth, detailed audit like this, you’re going to find little things. You always have! I mean, we write 1000 checks a week. You think something may slip through one way or the other? It’s typical and of absolutely no concern.”
McCready ended by saying that Pulaski County currently has $37 million in the bank and is doing better financially than most neighboring counties.