Citing dissatisfaction with her utility bills and the process of questioning them, a Fulton woman has filed to begin a petition audit with the Missouri State Auditor's Office of the city of Fulton's utilities finances and state and federal grant usage.
Fulton resident and two-time city council hopeful Kathy Segerson said she sought the audit as chief petitioner last week, based on issues she had with the billing department about a year before. If enough signatures are collected, the state would audit the city and stick it with the bill.
"I don't feel like they've been completely open with us exactly how much of an expenditure went towards this or that," Segerson said. "It'd get to where (each month) I'd have another $300, $400 bill and they couldn't tell me why. I went in with receipts and they couldn't match up. I think the city as a whole's representatives need to be transparent for others to see."
The number of signatures needed is set on a sliding scale based on the number of people who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election. With 3,295 people in Fulton having cast a ballot in that election according to the Callaway County Clerk's office, Segerson would need 15 percent, or about 494 signatures.
It's a process Fulton's Director of Administration Bill Johnson called "extreme" and "expensive" to get answers from a city that has received awards for its transparency and pays to have itself audited every year.
"I would have thought before someone went for a petition audit they would have given us an opportunity to provide that information," Johnson said. "Being involved with a state audit doesn't scare me, what bothers me to an extent is that there are citizens who would sign a petition without taking it upon themselves to ask questions. To me a state audit seems like an extremely expensive step when we're annually audited anyway."
Segerson said she believed the city had never been audited. While Johnson and Chief Financial Officer Kathy Holschlag said the city had never been under a petition audit, the city already spends about $35,000 a year on its own independent external audit that covers all aspects of city finances and functions, including utility billing and booking.
The Fulton Sun reported June 26, 2013, that auditing firm Williams-Keepers gave the city a clean slate for 2012. Johnson said the city routinely performs that well, and Williams-Keepers is expected to return and spend several weeks thoroughly auditing utility billing and all other areas of the city's government and finances for 2013 in May.
Another complaint of Segerson's was that she felt there were too many types of billing software in use - as many as three, she said - and that she felt the system lacked transparency. Holschlag said that the city used Incode, a software billing system, for several years before switching to Springbrook over two years in 2005 and 2006. The city uses Springbrook universally now but still retains a copy of the old software to access older bills if need be.
Holschlag noted the city has also won an award from the national Government Finance Officers Association for excellence in financial reporting every year since 1998.
The state auditor's website, auditor.mo.gov, states "there is really no such thing as an average audit and it is difficult to estimate the cost of a particular audit until we are well underway with the audit." Johnson said in cities such as Ashland, audits have cost as much as $50,000. He noted state and federal grant monies are also subject to their own audits by law.
Segerson said that she was aware the price tag some cities have paid was several thousand dollars, but she felt it was a small price to pay for what she felt would bring better transparency to local government.
"(If it finds nothing) we can all take a deep breath and say "you know what, we're being governed by fine folks and we don't have anything to worry about,'" Segerson said. "Why shouldn't the city be audited and why shouldn't we have to make it more transparent so it doesn't need to be audited? It's better to pay a small cost and rest assured it's going well, or spend the money now and get whatever is wrong corrected."