An exhaustive and even painful cleaning process is being carried out at Fort Worth City Hall — not the scrubbing-the-floors type but the cleaning-up-the-financial-accounts type.
It’s painful because a team of employees working since Feb. 1 has discovered that the financial accounting on major debt programs, including bond projects and certificates of obligation going back almost four decades, has been just plain sloppy.
That’s not acceptable, because voters who are asked to approve a bond program must be able to count on the projects being done on time and the money properly accounted for.
Evidence of sloppy accounting strengthens a growing argument that state and local debt in Texas has expanded too much. That argument has been prominent in many bond elections in recent years.
The good news is that the cleanup team has made significant progress. They’ve reduced the number of “inactive projects” by 72 percent and the “unbalanced project list” by 58 percent.
The bad news is that the balancing effort so far is $1.7 million in the hole. The money from projects that had a surplus has come up that much short of covering those that had a deficit.
At the end of the process, scheduled Sept. 1, city officials will have to transfer money from other city funds to cover any accounting shortfall.
“When I first saw this, I was horrified because I could just picture that we would have millions here that we would have to find to fund,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “We still don’t know what’s out there.”
Still, in the big picture it’s not likely that the fund transfers will be the biggest part of the problem. The city could cover even a $4 million hole, although the money could surely have other uses.
The real problem is the blow to public perception. Price has the best prescription: sunlight.
“For four years, I’ve worked on open government and transparency,” she said.
“I intend for this process to be very clear to our citizens. If we come up $2 million or $4 million short, I’m going to tell [citizens] where it came from, why it’s there and what we’re going to have do to address it. I will admit, this makes me nervous until we get to the bottom of it.”
As well it should. But transparency is essential.