Fernandina Beach News Leader
A million reasons to be concerned
By Steve Nicklas -- STEVE'S MARKETPLACE
Local residents just got a million or so reasons why Nassau County has to take hold of its finances.
Every dollar stolen from residents in the scandal involving a former county finance supervisor should serve a million notices and reminders. But once again, county officials are seemingly unresponsive and unconcerned.
At least the new clerk of court, John Crawford, did the right thing in alerting state officials when the financial records did not add up as his new regime took office. Several county commissioners got upset with Crawford for asking the state to investigate another troubling matter regarding funds spent for wetlands restoration at the new courthouse. They felt he should have called it to their attention first, and let them fully investigate in-house.
That's about like asking blind mice to find their way out of a maze. The lack of oversight and accountability by commissioners - they are, after all, running the county as our elected stewards - helped foster the mess in the first place.
The $1 million that was stolen from county coffers is evidence of this. There must be checks and balances, and accounting measures, to prevent something like this again.
One of the few comments from local officials is that most of the money was collected from fees and fines that are owed to the state. They also described an elaborate scheme by the finance director that was impossible for them and their auditors to detect.
They said many of the fines and fees were paid in cash. This made it easier and less noticeable for the finance director to pocket them. With such logic, however, this type of activity must be going on everywhere cash is handled.
Let's see, most small businesses handle cash, as do banks, convenience stores, lemonade stands, etc. While theft can always be a potential problem, safeguards are normally in place.
With most fines and fees, there is an identifying number on the summons or notice. When the money is paid, it is applied to that number. This is how it is noted on a computer that the fine or fee is paid.
Many companies and agencies also carry fidelity bonds to protect against theft. These are relatively inexpensive and pay off to cover damages in a case like this. County officials have not said anything about carrying such a protective measure, or may not even know whether they have one or not.
This is how chaotic, disorganized and irresponsible our current government is. They are more focused on beating local residents out of another gas tax than they are getting their financial house in order.
They could raise taxes and fees and anything else within their grasp - and probably still not be able to balance their budget. With $80 million in long-term debt, a deteriorating credit rating and the lack of leadership, you have to wonder if they will not just blow any additional money.
The question now is what they will do to prevent something like this from happening again. The money that was stolen ($1 million) is about the same amount that county officials hope to raise in a whole year from their newly passed 5-cent gas tax. That's a million steps forward, folks. And a million steps back.
Steve Nicklas is a financial adviser who lives on Amelia Island.