Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:
The Commercial Dispatch on a former chief financial officer of a Mississippi city accused of embezzling nearly $290,000:
The arrest of former Columbus chief financial officer Milton Rawle on Monday doesn’t close the book on the financial disaster that robbed or wasted $1.6 million of taxpayer money between 2016 and 2018.
Two years after a city audit report revealed discrepancies in the city’s finances, leading to both an independent audit and an investigation by the state auditor’s office, Rawle who resigned under pressure in 2019, was arrested on an embezzlement charge.
State auditor Shad White said Rawle embezzled almost $290,000 between 2016 and 2018. With interest and investigative fees, he owes the city a little more than $350,000. How much of that money will ever be recouped is difficult to determine.
While Rawle will be held accountable for whatever criminal offense that can be proven, the entire culpability cannot be attributed to a single person.
The painful -- and expensive -- lesson is that accountability must be built into city finances. What we see here is what happens in the absence of proper checks and balances. As we have said before on this page, that lack of checks and balances has been present in the CFO’s office as well as in city council meetings.
Mayor Robert Smith said the city has made changes in light of the investigation. No longer will the CFO handle transactions and sign checks independently. The mayor will approve transfers submitted by the CFO and will co-sign all checks issued by the city with city HR Director Pat Mitchell.
In addition to the regular claims docket provided to the mayor and council, the CFO now must present a monthly financial statement to the mayor and council.
These are good policies and long overdue.
Beyond that, it’s important the council carefully review the claims docket, which historically has almost always been approved by consent and rarely discussed.
White referred to the amount of money taken as “disturbing,” especially compared to the size of the city budget. He also referenced the fact the city exceeded its budget two years in a row and suggested some of those overages could not be accounted for. Neither state not private auditors could account for all of the expenditures. It’s hard to accept that taxpayer funds have simply disappeared into thin air, but it appears that’s what we are faced with.
It’s a hard, expensive lesson that has undermined citizens’ confidence.
Despite the measures now in place, it will take a long time for that confidence to be restored.
The Daily Journal on the Mississippi Health department mandating data on coronavirus cases from schools:
As schools in the region continue to reopen, including Tupelo Public School District on Monday, we are encouraged to hear that the State Department of Health will mandate that school districts will submit coronavirus data and that those updates will be publicized.
This is after previous news indicated that school districts in the state would not be required to inform the public of cases among students and faculty. During a panel discussion on Thursday, reported by Daily Journal reporter Danny McArthur, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said that MSDH is working out the reporting issue process as schools are beginning to submit the data.
“We are going to mandate that the schools submit to us on a weekly basis the number of cases that they have, the number of classes affected, quarantine, the number of quarantined individuals,” Dobbs said. “We do plan on posting that data by school.”
Dobbs said those under 18 will be the fastest growing group of total cases, and we expect that will continue to be the case as more schools start back. As of Friday, Dobbs said 38 counties have schools reporting cases. Overall, 109 teachers and 69 students have confirmed cases, while another 254 teachers and staff and 489 students are in quarantine.
Corinth School District was the first to open in the state and has set the standard for communicating the latest from its schools. As of this publication, the district reported 13 positive cases for students and three staff members since starting back on July 27.
As we have previously written, it is of the upmost importance to get our children back in school but must do so in a way that makes sense to keep the students, faculty and their loved ones safe.
We hope to see the level of transparency from our local schools, as we’ve seen from Corinth. This information is valuable to each community and to help parents make decisions for their children.
The Vicksburg Post on tax abatement requests in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Warren County:
It is around this time each year when corporations, businesses, developers and others, seek to have taxes abated for economic development projects, capital investments in current operations and expansions of facilities.
If located within the city limits, they seek abatements from property taxes — or ad valorem taxes — from both the city and the county, which requires appeals to both the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Warren County Board of Supervisors. If located outside the city limits, those abatement requests are made just to the Supervisors.
In recent weeks, we have seen the city and the county leadership take slightly different approaches when deciding to approve abatement requests. The city board has approved each abatement, while the county has appeared to take a more thoughtful approach.
Admittedly, this is the first time around the block for many of the supervisors, as four of the five on the board are still less than a year into their first terms. Through their first few months in of office, this group has been thoughtful, questioned nearly every decision before them, and taken a detailed approach in making each decision.
These abatements have been no different, and rightfully so.
While we are pro-business and believe tax abatements for corporations and businesses are a necessary economic development tool, there are limits and there should be accountability.
The most recent request to come before both the city and the county involves Cooper Lighting.
Just as the company — which was recently purchased by Signify — had requested an ad valorem tax abatement on more than $1 million in capital investment, it also became public it was cutting hundreds of jobs.
The tax break is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things — $5,890 for the city and $8,081.61 for the county for the next five years — but there is a precedent that must be set and adhered to.
While abatements are used as economic development and economic recruitment tools, there must be accountability. They must come with stipulations and often do. In many cases, abatements are tied to the number of jobs created and maintained.
Why should a company or business be rewarded for making investments in their operation, when there are hundreds of local jobs lost?
While the city did approve the abatement for Cooper Lighting, the county has delayed its decision to give more thought and attention to the matter. A decision is expected Monday. While we do not know the results of the vote today, we do at least know the vote Monday will not come on a whim or without tremendous consideration.
We remain pro-business and encourage our local of officials to put every tool to work in recruiting and developing jobs for those who live in Warren County, but a commitment — a partnership — has two sides to it. If these abatements are given, they must be earned and we hope and expect local leaders to hold everyone to their end of the agreement.