September 10, 2014

City Gets Its Books in Order

Not too long ago, the manner in which the City of Columbia handled its finances was, frankly, a disaster.

However, after a long campaign to right the ship, it seems things are looking up a bit.

The city announced it has received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (CAFR) for the 2013 fiscal year from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada.

This marks the first time the city has received the honor in nearly a decade, with the last such certificate coming in 2005.

The association has nearly 18,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, the lion's share of which are federal, state, county and city finance officials. The aim of CAFR is to challenge governments to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of generally accepted accounting principles, and to work in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure.

Problems with Columbia's finances date back to at least the 2007-08 fiscal year, when the city found itself with a $12 million deficit. Those losses arose through multiple problems, including money lost on investments, bills being paid multiple times and other fiscal and accounting missteps.

Since that time, City Council has taken a number of steps to address the problems, including overhauling the finance department, cutting spending and encouraging tighter accounting practices.

It's been a long road, but it appears those efforts are paying dividends. City Finance Director Jan Alonso says she is thrilled and relieved Columbia received a CAFR for FY 2013.

Alonso says the process for earning the certificate was thorough.

"This is [GFOA's] acknowledgement that you have completed your fiscal year, you have had your audit, your auditor is satisfied that everything is done and that you've done everything timely and everything right," Alonso says. "This goes to a group of my peers and they review it, then they decide whether we get this award or not."

Alonso has worked with the city's finance office, in several capacities, for nearly six years.

"The city has been in a state where they couldn't get [a CAFR], because they were behind in their financial reporting," Alonso says. "So, this has been the ultimate goal. This is the ultimate, highest thing that we can get."

There are about 15 people in the city's finance department, according to Alonso.

Mayor Steve Benjamin expressed his appreciation for the city's finance staff and their work in getting the city's books back in order.

"The transformation of our city's finances over the past five years, including years of budget surplus and improved credit ratings, speaks volumes about our firm commitment to fiscal discipline," the mayor said a prepared statement. "I could not be more proud of our staff, our finance staff in particular, for continuing to exceed our expectations every year."

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