"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Norristown Missing Financial Records? The “Good Old Days” Were Worse

People in Norristown—and elsewhere, I’ll bet—are talking about the town’s finances, spurred by two rather unusual events, probably related.  In November of last year, police escorted Finance Director Richard Zawisza out of his office; he has been variously described since as being “on leave,” or “on vacation.”  Then last month came the news that the Municipality of Norristown never received the annual audit reports (required by law) for five years in a row, from 2008 through 2012.  This was discovered by new Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones shortly after he was hired last August.  There is reason to suspect that the two events are connected, because Municipal Council is now paying more to the audit firms that did not complete their reports the first time.   Why?  Because, as Jones admitted, “they never completed those audit reports, through no fault of their own.”

This is disturbing, and has given ammunition to those critical of Norristown municipal administration, particularly because the law surrounding “personnel matters” allows—no, mandates—little release of details to the public.  Municipal critics are right to be concerned; we are talking about the public tax dollars here.  There may be much more to this, or there may not.

What this event should NOT do is add to the already pervasive attitude of suspicion and worst assumptions that permeates the social media today, at least about such small municipalities as Norristown.  This is an all-too common problem, particularly when it is frequently fed horror stories, such as that little town in Florida that seems to have not just practiced corruption, but institutionalized it.  I’ve attacked this concept before, as “the wrong attitude,” arguing that it is simply not justified to believe that things are worse now than they used to be, back in “the good old days.”  People carry around this myth that back then, honest administration kept employment up, taxes low and crime down because we “didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight,” and all the rest of that nostalgic nonsense.  If you think that today’s Norristown has incompetent administrators and Council, let’s return to those “good old days” for a lesson in historical context.

Back in “the good old days” of 1975 (not so very old, but before both Section 8 and Deinstitutionalization, remember?) Norristown’s financial condition was far worse than just some missing audit reports.  Norristown Borough Council, caught between a collapsing tax base and a political refusal to raise taxes, had failed to pass a 1975 budget by January 1 of that year, as required by law.  At the March, 1975 meeting, Councilman William Lessig, who had been appointed chairman of the Finance Committee the previous year, shared with his colleagues some of the singularly unpleasant things he had discovered during his brief tenure.  Running a municipality requires complex and reliable financial records, and Lessig summarized the state of things in Norristown quite succinctly:
“In a very short period of time, it became apparent to me that the record keeping procedures employed by the borough fell into one or more of three classifications.  They were either inaccurate, inadequate, or non-existent.”

Mind you, Borough Council had every reason to see the crisis coming, long before it arrived.  Back in April, 1974, Council realized that no Tax Collector’s Report had so far been submitted to it for that year, and resolved to write a letter asking the Borough Tax Collector to please do his job and prepare a report for each monthly meeting.  The May meeting arrived but the Tax Collector’s report didn’t.  Council girded itself and wrote another letter asking for a report by the June meeting.  The June meeting convened, but again, no Tax Collector’s Report.  When pressed, Borough Manager James Coyle stated that he had talked to the Tax Collector by phone, and would send him another letter immediately.  The July meeting convened, only to discover that…wait for it…no report had been prepared.  There is no mention in the Council meeting records whether anyone went so far as to speak to the Tax Collector in person, or to take other such drastic measures in later months, but to wrap up this part of the story, the Norristown Borough Tax Collector did not file a single report for the entire year of 1974.

Councilman Lessig also offered evidence that the Tax Collector’s report was by no means the only problem, and that the problems were anything but new.  Such things should have been reported during the annual audit and, as it turned out, the auditors had done exactly that.  Lessig produced a series of statements by previous auditors that had pointed out the Borough’s lack of even the most basic elements of financial oversight.  In other words, the auditors weren’t at fault this time either.  Here is a brief selection of those statements, going back to 1969 (the even better years, right?):

1969:  We are signing this report under protest.”  The borough had no official competent in the field of finance, the Treasurer had signed blank checks, and the Petty Cash account was “impossible to audit, figures were written over, erased or illegible.”
1973:  The borough kept no books at all for its secondary funds, bank statements were missing, and there were no controls on investments.
1975:  The General Fund, receipts and disbursements, has not been reconciled with the cash in the bank.  In other words the books are not in balance.”  There isn’t any list of delinquent real estate tax receivables for all prior years up to and including 1974.”

I’m not even tempted to make the obvious “the more things change…” reference about this matter, because I believe it would be a rhetorical cheap shot, and unjustified.  The full story behind the missing audit reports and the dismissal of the Finance Director has yet to come out, and given the strict controls over “personnel issues,” it might never.  But unless someone uncovers something rather more substantially wrong than uncompleted audits, there is really no comparing Norristown government today to Norristown government then, in financial matters or on any other subject.  The borough structure of members elected from different wards had long since reduced both Council and administration to competing mini-empires utterly unable to even visualize what was good for the entire town, let alone act on it.  The Mayor had little real power, and the Borough Manager had none (the office was a revolving door for several years, as optimistic managers arrived and frustrated ones left).  The problem was not one of individuals (although many certainly contributed), it was systemic.  In other words, whether it is lack of "vision" or lack of several other characteristics desirable in municipal leaders, those of Norristown today can't hold a candle to those of Norristown yesterday.  Anyone who looks back with nostalgia on “the good old days of Norristown” and includes local government in that rosy remembrance does not know what he or she is talking about.

So, whatever you may feel regarding how today is worse than when you were growing up, try to accept that this "things have been going to hell since [insert your specific favorite here]" is part of the human condition; every generation feels it.  It is not history, and we really must understand and deal with with tendency if we want to know the truth, not some collection of self-serving myths.  Things really have changed, and this one, at least, for the better.

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