Columbus’ new Chief Financial Officer Deliah Vaughn came to City Hall this week facing an uphill climb.
She enters her position seven months into the 2019 fiscal year for a city that has operated its general fund at deficits exceeding $800,000 each of the two previous years. On top of that, city leaders are scrambling to mitigate spending after hired consultant Mike Crowder, a certified public accountant, projected earlier this year that the general fund balance could be as much as $338,000 overdrawn if something didn’t change.
For city councilmen, Vaughn’s mettle will be proven by how she handles these obstacles, and her first test will come Tuesday evening when she presents the council with the city financial report.
“She’s going to be monitored pretty close,” said Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens. “She’s got to come in and pick up the ball and just run with it. We’re expecting a lot from her.”
Vaughn, who started as CFO on Monday, spent the last two years as a health services agency controller in Tunica County. Before that, she was controller for Tunica County proper. Her CFO salary is $75,000 annually.
Though she faces steep challenges and high expectations, Vaughn will have some help in the early going. Mayor Robert Smith asked Columbus Light and Water comptroller Mike Bernsen, who worked as Columbus’ CFO from 2008 to 2012, to help train Vaughn on the basics of the city’s accounting software. Former CFO Milton Rawle, who resigned in February after months of public criticism that he hadn’t provided councilmen with an adequate picture of the city’s financial situation, is also assisting with her software training; and a consultant from Watkins, Ward and Stafford, the accounting firm that conducts the city’s annual audit, will be training her on state audit law and procedure, Bernsen said.
All three are helping Vaughn at no cost to the city.
Additionally, Bernsen said Crowder will help Vaughn familiarize herself with the details of the city’s financial crisis. Crowder will continue to be paid his contracted amount of $100 per-hour until he is no longer needed.
“I think (Vaughn is) going to do very well at this job,” Bernsen told The Dispatch. “She seems very qualified, very competent. She’s a very ‘by-the-book’ person. She’s had to deal with financial issues in the past in Tunica County. I think she’ll be just fine.”
Columbus Public Information Officer Joe Dillon did not make Vaughn available for an interview with The Dispatch. When approached directly by a reporter, Vaughn declined to comment.
Smith did not return The Dispatch’s calls for comment by press time.
Expectations of competency, transparency
When Vaughn will present the city’s monthly financial report to councilmen at Tuesday’s regular meeting, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said he hopes she uses that time to provide updated reports and numbers, as well as a clear explanation of what they mean.
“She’s got a tremendous responsibility,” he said. “We rely on her an awful lot. We’re not accountants, so I really want to see accurate reports and numbers every month. I think that’s what we weren’t getting for the past two years.”
Councilmen were first made aware of the city’s financial crisis in November when then CFO Rawle asked them to amend the Fiscal Year 2018 budget to reflect a nearly $881,000 deficit. That revelation led to councilmen implementing a series of freezes, first on all city spending, and then dialing it back to a hiring freeze and intense scrutiny on travel spending, among other city expenditures. Councilmen also approved an increase in health insurance deductibles for all city employees, as well as a reduction in all overhead and discretionary spending by department heads.
Most recently, three police officers who earned promotions will go without the corresponding pay increases until the city lifts the hiring freeze. City officials would not confirm to The Dispatch if officers will receive backpay once the freeze is lifted.
Mickens is more interested in seeing how Vaughn approaches the city’s immediate financial crisis.
“It’s not going to take long to see if she can handle the job or not,” he said. “I want to hear the numbers, sure, but I want to hear from her too. What are her plans for the city? What does she plan on doing differently than the last CFO?
“That’s not to say we’re not going to help her,” he added. “Everyone’s going to work with her. We’re all in this together.”
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