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State audits of three city agencies find no major problems

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2009 - City tax dollars for nurses for parochial schools, excessive travel expenses and slow progress in completing lead-remediation projects are among the concerns raised in state audits of three St. Louis agencies.

State Auditor Susan Montee released the findings Tuesday at a press conference at the Wainwright state office building. The performance audits covered the Lead Safe St. Louis program, the Health Department and the Department of Human Services.

The audit of the Health Department raised questions about the city's spending $223,025 for five nurses to serve 36 Catholic and Lutheran schools. Though some in the audience raised questions about the appropriateness of using public dollars for these schools, Montee, who refused to pass judgment on the practice, said that people could ask the state attorney general's office to examine the program. Her audit suggested that the city review the expenditures and consider providing equitable services to all city students.

Officials from the Department of Health said that the St. Louis public schools already pay for nursing services to students. Montee said the audit didn't seek to determine whether the city's nursing program was fully funded.

While the lead-abatement program is now run pretty well, Montee said the audit revealed that agencies had overspent their payrolls by $120,000 for various lead-related programs. In addition, some lead-abatement projects had not been adequately monitored.

Overall, however, Montee said that documents provided by the city suggested St. Louis was spending the money in those areas where children had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Among those questioning the city's numbers and the audit's findings were Percy Green, a civil-rights activist; Don Fitz, coordinator of the Gateway Green Alliance; and Byron Clemens, an officer in St. Louis Teachers Local 420. All either doubted the accuracy of the information provided by the city or were disappointed that the audit didn't say how many city children were afflicted with lead poisoning.

Montee said she was more concerned about the city's current performance than about problems in the past.

Overall, she said, the audits found few serious problems in the three agencies. She stressed that the Department of Human Services in particular was well run in spite of the audit's concerns about proper documentation of allocations made through the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging. The audit also said the department failed to conduct certain fiscal reviews and was slow to discover that it had misspent $23,134. The department administers a budget of $15 million.

The Department of Health audit said employees on city business should not have stayed at hotels costing more than $350 a night. City health officials defended the expenses, saying the agency's functions required travel to out-of-state conferences and that the expenses were covered by federal grants. But Montee said the hotel expenses were excessive regardless of who paid the final bill.

The audit also said eight Air Pollution Control inspectors in the Health Department took their vehicles home and did not keep track of the mileage for personal use. The inspectors also failed to inspect 11 of 24 large pollution-emitting facilities during the period covered by the audit. The agency said inspections were not done because staff members weren't available for the work.

The audits are part of a full review of all city agencies in response to a citizens' petition. State law requires such audits if enough registered voters request one. Over 7,700 registered voters requested the audit. Montee says the audit will cost $1 million.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.