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Montee completes audits of city of St. Louis, suggests governing setup is way too complicated

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2010 - As her staff completed its indepth series of audits of St. Louis' city government, the chief finding of state Auditor Susan Montee came as no surprise to most officials involved.

The city's convoluted and overlapping subdivisions are unique, complicated and costly, Montee said Wednesday during her closing news conference. "I think the city should consider opening the door ... to any options available'' to change its system of governance, the auditor said. "I do know it is not working well."

Montee was referring to a structure that includes:

  • A weak mayoral system, with the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment -- a three-member body of the mayor, comptroller and president of the Board of the Aldermen -- handling most major fiscal decisions.
  • Eight so-called "county offices" -- including the recorder of deeds, sheriff, license collector, treasurer and collector of revenue -- that exist because St. Louis is its own county and thus is required by state law to provide certain functions. Many of those offices' operations are, in effect, govern by state law.
  • The Board of Police Commissioners, who (except for the mayor) are appointed by the governor to run the city's Police Department. The city pays the bills, but the Legislature must OK some activities (and area legislators often hold behind-the-scenes sway over promotions).

"I absolutely cannot compare the city of St. Louis to any other audit,'' Montee said.
That said, her chief criticisms were typical of those often levied at local governments: The computer systems are antiquated, officials' use of city vehicles is not adequately monitored, not enough checks and balances are in place to prevent employee fraud, and too many no-bid contracts are awarded.

Montee said the city must do something swiftly about its computer systems, which date back to the 1970s and '80s and handle payroll and other city finances.

Her audits' chief concerns arose again in Wednesday's final round of audits, which included the office of Mayor Francis Slay and the city's medical examiner's office.

Mayoral chief of staff Jeff Rainford, who was on hand for Montee's report, said the mayor's office was not challenging any of Montee's findings and had already changed procedures. For example, the office is committed to putting out future contracts for bids, even for consulting services, such as the city's lobbyists in Jefferson City.

He said that Barbara Geisman, Slay's deputy mayor for development, is talking to the Police Department about using their up-to-date software for the city's payroll operations. The hangup over computers, Rainford acknowledged, is cost -- the city currently is trying to trim roughly $50 million from the expected budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Overall, Montee's most explosive reports were issued earlier, detailing employee embezzlement in the city Streets Department and a number of misdeeds in the Police Department.

The audits began three years ago, at the behest of the city's Green Party, who filed the required petitions during a controversy with the city over lead-paint removal. But the Greens have no say over the scope of the city audits, which dealt only briefly with lead paint.

The city of St. Louis must foot the $1.2 million bill for most of the audits. The city is not paying the $132,000 cost for auditing the Police Board (covered by Montee's office because it's a state agency) and the as-yet unknown cost for Montee's current audit of the city clerk, who falls within the state's judicial system.

"I can't point to $1.2 million in savings, but I do believe it's worth it,'' Rainford said of the series of audits. "I'm confident over time, we will save way more than $1.2 million."

Assessing the more than year-long audit process, Rainford added: "It's like going to the dentist -- painful, but when it's over, you're glad you did it."

The fallout of Montee's assessment of St. Louis' complicated government structure has prompted Slay to renew his call for the city to re-enter St. Louis County as a municipality, Rainford said.

Such action would not affect St. Louis County, he said, other than it would take over the functions of the city's eight "county offices'' -- a cost-saving for the city, which failed to obtain voter approval several years ago to put the offices under the mayor's jurisdiction.

Rainford predicted that it may take five years for the city of St. Louis to successfully woo St. Louis County and its residents,  but such a merger will happen.

Slay is "going to talk up the advantages,'' the aide said.

And now, he can point to Montee's own findings.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.