Despite solid progress under the administration of Mayor Marion Barry, the District of Columbia government is far from able to maintain accurate financial records and manage its money effectively, according to the accounant's who audited the city's books.
The accountant's report, which could be used by members of Congress seeking to continue congressional supervison of the city's financial operations, said the District is plagued by staff shortages, inadequately trained personnel, erratic bookkeeping, outdated procedures and inconsistent policies.
Their 44-page analysis, distributed to city officials and key members of Congress, said that "much remains to be done" to complete inplementation of the city's computerized accounting system and to "ensure the integrity of its financial systems."
The accountants' recommendations range from highly technical refinements of internal bookkeeping prodedures to common sense projects such as the development of a list of liquor dealers for use by workers assigned to collect liquor taxes. In the aggregate, the findings depict a city government struggling to cast off bad habits and get its house in order, with no firm assurance of success.
The political implications of that assessment may be greater than the fiscal implications. In the coming year, Congress must decide whether to give up or to extend the direct supervision of city financial operations that it has exercised since 1976 through the Financial Oversight Commission.
Congress created the commission when the District's books were found to be unauditable. Now that an audit has been successfully completed, city officials hope to see the commission abolished. But there are forces in Congress and in the General Accounting Office -- and in Barry's administration -- who fear that the gains made so far in tightening the city's financial operations will be lost if Congress relinquishes its oversight.
The accountants' report was prepared by Arthur Andersen & Co. and Lucas, Tucker & Co. They were engaged by the Oversight Commission to audit the city's books, and their report on management practices is an outgrowth of that effort. It is commonprocedure for acconting firms to issue such "management reports" to governments whose books they audit.
Correcting the problems they found and acting on their recommendations, they said, "will require significant further efforts on the part of the District and others to get District financial management, reporting and controls to the level of consistency and reliablity which would be typical of an organization of the size and complexity of the District."
City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers said the report came as no surprise and he did not dispute its basic findings.
"The primary part, which I don't disagree with, is that you have to have competent personnel to put the District on a proper footing, and I agree with that," Rogers said.
The report said that almost all city departments lack personnel trained to keep accurate records and to operate the computerized accounting system. Barry and Rogers have acknowledged that the city is particulary short of data-processing personnel.
Rogers said that the management report, developed over the course of a year, "emphasizes a lot of things that we have already done," such as filling the position of comptroller in the major city agencies. "The other things we will decide to do or not to do after we review them step by step," he said.
Many of the findings and recommendations deal with operations of the Financial Management System (FMS), the sophisticated but faltering computerized accounting system through which all revenue must be processed. That system, ordered by the commission as the key part of its $38-million program to put they city's financial records in order, requires both competence and cooperation among those who use it.
Among the other problems cited by the accountants were cash transfers not recorded in FMS, failure to account for canceled checks, failure to remove retired workers from the payroll and failure to asses penalties for late payment of liquor taxes.
In a deadpan commentary on the way one agency operates, the report suggested that "the procedures manual for solid waste operations should be reorganized to make it understandable."