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City audits again find documentation problems

By Rachel Lippmann, KWMU

St. Louis, MO – State auditor Susan Montee has again criticized St. Louis city departments for failing to properly document how they are spending federal grant money.

Montee is auditing the entire city at the request of a citizen's petition. She released on Tuesday the reports on the city's human services and health departments, and the Lead Safe St. Louis program.

Montee called the Human Services Department the best one she has reviewed so far, saying the documentation problems there were minimal. The report found the department failed to explain why it did not issue bids for some programs, and did not detect about $23,000 in misspent grant money in a timely fashion. Some of the contracted service providers used the grant funding for unauthorized expenses.

The Lead Safe St. Louis program had made substantial changes after an internal audit by the city, Montee said, so many of the concerns of the original petitioners were addressed. But the program is not completing lead abatement in a timely fashion, and the departments are not communicating with each other, meaning, "the city may not be reaching its full potential to provide services to at-risk children," the audit said.

The state audit did not evaluate the underlying policies of the Lead Safe program, including how it is determined what homes and buildings should be cleaned up. But Montee said she did not have concerns about the accuracy of the data the city is providing about the program, a point disputed by members of the audience, which included some of the original petitioners.

The sharpest criticism was directed at the health department, which was faulted for failing to inspect 11 buildings for air quality compliance, and allowing air quality employees to drive government cars for personal commuting. The department was also found to have routinely reimbursed for travel above federally authorized rates.

The problem there, said health department director Pamela Rice Walker, is a city policy that reimburses for cab travel only to and from the airport.

"My staff's either going to have to pay their own local transportation when they get there, which can become extremely expensive in some of the bigger cities, or they're going to have to stay in the sponsoring hotel," which can be more expensive, Walker said.

Montee was especially critical of agreements the city signed with the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Lutheran Elementary School Association to place nurses, at taxpayer expense, in the schools those organizations oversee.

"While it may be something that is of great benefit to the students and families as a whole, it is certainly something outside the city's responsibility to be providing school nurses," Montee said. The program cost the city $233,000 in fiscal year 2008, and has been going on for at least 20 years.

Walker said the program allows the department to access immunization records and ensures the students are receiving basic health care. And the Archdiocese's superintendent of Catholic education said hiring its own nurses would be cost-prohibitive.