February 15, 2007
AUGUSTA, Ga.---It's no secret: Augusta's had some big budget problems over the years. Most of it's been blamed on bad bookkeeping and unexpected lawsuits. But some leaders think employees stealing money is becoming a main factor.
Inside Augusta's License and Inspection Department, money is always coming in. With nearly every business in the county paying fees here, they deal with big bucks...and mostly cash.
We asked Director Rob Sherman how much money goes through the office.
"In a year's time, $12 million," he said.
Even with a dozen clerks handling the money and keeping it at their desks, Sherman says he's never worried about his employees stealing.
"We're comfortable," he said. "We don't have an issue out here."
And that's how other department heads felt...until there was an issue.
Clerk Mandy Michelle Rhodes was charged last year with stealing more than $21,000 from the city's magistrate court over a six month period. And city golf course manager Guy Reid was busted for taking more than $3000 from the Patch.
Those are two examples of what Commissioner Marion Williams calls a bigger problem that's hurting Augusta's bottom line.
"There's a lot of money that's being manipulated and taken from this government, and we don't have a clue as to how much," Commissioner Williams said.
Williams says there are few if any checks and balances in most departments. He points to a case in the city's auto tag office five years back, when it was discovered that over two years, clerk Stephanie Womack stole more than $120,000 by manipulating the computer system.
Director Roger Tomlin says they've made major changes since then, and he's confident theft in his department is a problem of the past.
"It's virtually impossible to make any kind of changes to the data once it's been put in," he said.
But in most cases, the employees were never caught until an audit revealed missing money. And the truth is, some departments haven't been audited in years.
So if theft is a bigger problem, what's causing it? Mayor Deke Copenhaver says it has a lot to do with employee morale.
"People are not being paid a tremendous amount of money," he said. "They're often beat up for the job they are doing."
But he agrees the city need more oversight.
"I'm glad things are coming to light, because I'm certainly concerned about the bottom line of the city," he said.
As to exactly how much of your money is missing, we may never know. City accountants only tell us there is at least $4 million unaccounted for...and they blame most of it on sloppy record-keeping.
City Administrator Fred Russell makes it clear that those who steal will pay.
"We'll continue to catch people that are doing wrong things and prosecute those that we can," he said.
Augusta's fleet manager says several county employees are fired each year for stealing gas.
He says some have even been prosecuted.