Members of a McLean County government panel expressed frustration and confusion Monday over a public dispute between the county’s two elected financial officers, a spat which county officials claim has delayed bills getting paid on time and threatened to tarnish the county’s reputation.
After separate presentations from County Auditor Michelle Anderson and County Treasurer Rebecca McNeil, the County Board’s Finance Committee voted unanimously during a special meeting to direct the county to adopt formal bookkeeping practices and to hire a certified public accountant who could help resolve the dispute.
The treasurer’s office oversees the collection and distribution of $348 million to nearly 200 taxing bodies. The auditor’s office records and tracks the county’s assets and expenses. Both offices are run by Republicans.
McNeil had accused Anderson of changing the county’s bookkeeping practices without notifying the County Board. Anderson has denied that, saying her office for decades has used a modified accrual system which recognizes expenses as they are billed, rather than later when they are paid.
Committee member Laurie Wollrab initially opposed the outside help, asking Anderson if she and the treasurer could work out their differences on their own.
“You’re a professional person, she’s a professional person,” Wollrab told Anderson. "Can we not get the two professional people in a room, sit down and make a process that makes sense for the county so that we don’t have these problems?
"I’m just asking you to do that for us. Can you agree to do that for us?”
“Sure,” Anderson replied.
Anderson also told the board she's the one who sets bookkeeping policy, citing a prior state attorney general opinion.
“I know there has been debate over who, the board or the auditor, has the authority to establish policy for the county,” Anderson said. “There is an (Illinois) attorney general’s (opinion) clearly placing that authority in my office. Attorney general opinions are binding.”
Anderson said in a public statement last week the treasurer was lying to the board and to administration.
Committee member Chuck Erickson told Anderson her comments unnecessarily escalated a problem he thought was under control.
“I thought we had it resolved,” Erickson said. “All it did was throw fire on this whole thing all over again and now we are back here again.”
McNeil said her office simply wants clarification from the county on how to handle the matter in the future.
“That’s what the staff wants,” McNeil said. “The staff has been wrongly accused of changing something and I have been wrongly accused of lying to this committee.”
The statement from the auditor also drew a rebuke from County Board Chairman John McIntyre.
“I take great exception to this,” McIntyre said. “Whenever there is a personal public attack of the integrity of the office of the County Treasurer and the office of the County Administration … then as chairman of (the McLean County Board) I feel it’s my responsibility to address this publicly.”
Anderson acknowledged part of the division dates back to the start of 2018 when the county moved accounts payable from the auditor to the treasurer's office.
“It’s how we did it when I paid bills prior to 20 months ago, but it’s not how Ms. McNeil has been doing it for the last 20 months,” Anderson said.
When asked if the problem stemmed from bill paying being moved out of the auditor’s office, Anderson replied “Probably.”
“I think we had maybe one meeting with administration at the time … to transition I would say a fairly large process for the county,” Anderson added.
Finance committee member Josh Barnett pressed Anderson on why county officials, including department heads worried about late bills, weren't notified of the changes.
“So whatever change you made is causing confusion within the day-to-day operations of the county, and I’m curious as to why you didn’t take the initiative to properly communicate that out to all of the interested parties within county government,” Barnett told Anderson.
“I don’t know that I have a great answer for that,” Anderson replied.
County Administrator Camille Rodriguez said adopting a formal policy enables administration to hold elected officials accountable when there are problems. She referenced once instance last month when McNeil asked her to approve payroll for the county's more than 800 employees because both employees in the county auditor's office were gone.
McNeil said she got an accusatory email from the auditor for not seeking authorization to do that.
“That email included comments about proper authorization, (the) attorney general, etc. etc.,” McNeil said. “That email should have included nothing other than ‘Thank you.’”
The county is also awaiting a legal opinion from the McLean County state’s attorney’s office to determine what legal authority it has to tell the officers holders how to do their jobs.
Committee member Erickson told Anderson he's worried the county will be told the auditor can make her own rules while the expert comes back and says the auditor is wrong.
“What do we do then?” Erickson asked.
Assistant State's Attorney Jessica Woods told Erickson it could take 30 to 60 gets to get a legal opinion.
The finance committee chose not to vote on conducting a complete financial audit. Finance committee member Carlo Robustelli says that's not necessary because there's not a question of financial wrongdoing.
“This issue is an issue, I’m going to call it a professional disagreement, though I think we’ve seen a lot of evidence that it hasn’t been as professional as it should be,” Robustelli said. “To me that’s the problem.”
Rodriguez said it's unlikely the county can craft a new policy by the end of the year, but she's confident that the county has some time as the auditor has agreed to at least temporarily return to earlier fiscal management policies.
Anderson presented the board with a formal accounts payable policy, which she said largely outlines the previous operating procedure prior to it being moved to the treasurer's office.
In the meantime, the county is working on getting caught up on vendors who are owed money and in some cases late fees.
“They are working with vendors to negotiate those (late fees),” Rodriguez said. “While the number isn’t large in terms of dollars, I worry about our reputation and our credibility and I think you can’t put a price on that.”
Rodriguez said she hopes to have bids for an outside CPA for the county to consider next month.
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