BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
A representative of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury is onsite this week at the County Water Office to investigate allegations of "questionable practices by the management" in the Chuckey and Cross Anchor utility districts.
The Cross Anchor Utility District Board met Monday to approve placing four employees on paid administrative leave, among other actions to block those employees from accounts.
The Chuckey Utility District Board met last week to take similar action following findings early in the board's private, annual audit by local certified public accountant (CPA) Mickey Ellis.
Ellis said in a recent interview that he was early in his annual audit of the districts when he came upon findings he felt necessary to report to the state comptroller.
NO COMMENT FOR NOW
Communications Director Blake Fontenay of the State Comptroller's Office said the state office would not comment on whether they had received these findings from Ellis, as policy limits public comment until the completion of an investigation.
However, Cross Anchor President Lloyd Dawson said during Monday's meeting that a representative from the state office began his investigation on Monday.
While technically separate, the two utility districts work out of the same office, located on U.S. 11E, and share employees through a force account that allows them to take turns utilizing those employees and completing projects.
Chuckey Utility District President John Carter said last week that it is within this overlap of the two districts that oversight becomes more difficult.
"All these issues and concerns and things seem to be revolved around two different, separate systems and things working in between them," Dawson said Monday.
"I really think we need to, in the future, look at combining both of these districts."
Commissioner Charles Baxter recommended that the boards hold a joint meeting at least quarterly so that each board can keep informed about what the other board is doing.
In addition, Commissioner Lynn Foshie recommended that a representative from each board attend the other board's meeting.
Dawson further called on the districts' bookkeeper and office manager to go over financial reports that the board approves monthly "line item by line item, so we will understand the information that's in those a little better."
The board took several formal actions Monday, including:
* confirming hiring Ed Kershaw as the board's attorney;
* placing the four employees (retired manager Shirley Collins and her husband, inspector Willie Collins, as well as their daughter, acting manager Kandie Jennings, and her husband, Bill Jennings) on paid administrative leave until the completion of the state's audit;
* appointing current employees to temporarily fill the positions of those on administrative leave, including Tyson Lamb as temporary operations manager/certified operator and Beth Fletcher as office manager;
* authorizing Fletcher and bookkeeper Stephanie Wallin as the only employees with access to bank accounts;
* requiring a commissioner's signature and either Fletcher's or Wallin's signature on every check;
* removing the four employees on administrative leave from all bank accounts;
* closing an open line of credit; and,
* listing Lamb as the authorized individual, rather than Kandie Jennings, on the State Revolving Loan application for water-line replacements.
Kershaw provided the board with a brief overview of the progression of events, explaining that Ellis allowed him to review the working papers from the audit.
Kershaw concluded from these papers and interviews of employees that "It did appear to me that his allegations, some of them, had merit.
"Right now we're in what I would call the second phase. Mr. Ellis is going to do a little more detailed investigation than he's done [so far]," Kershaw said.
Dawson, who has been on the district's board for more than 20 years, said that he is confident the district will recover.
"We'll come out better for it, guarantee that. Maybe not all of us, but we will survive," he said. "We'll come out a stronger district and be better."
Baxter emphasized that there will be no change in service to the customers, to which Dawson agreed.
Dawson also called on the employees to come to the board meetings, and to come to the commissioners with any concerns.
"We don't know what's going on if we're not told," he said.