Kadner: No reports, so Harvey fined $19,300
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org August 27, 2013 10:20PM
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka talks about budgets to staff at Laremont School in Gages Lake. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:44AM
By state law, local governments are required to file annual financial reports with the Illinois comptroller’s office.
That’s about 5,200 government bodies, according to the office. But what happens if a municipality doesn’t file a financial report?
For years, the governments were sent a letter notifying them that they were in violation of the law. Sometimes their officials got a telephone call or even a personal visit from a member of the comptroller’s office, begging them to comply.
But they could always file for a six-month extension, and another six-month extension and a third and a fourth. That’s two years worth of extensions.
Or the government could simply ignore the law, which many did. For example, Harvey last filed its annual financial report in 2007, according to the comptroller’s website.
But something new is happening.
Bradley Hahn, a spokesman for Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, said Harvey has been hit with $19,300 in fines.
A new law took effect this year that gives the comptroller the ability to fine local governments that fail to comply with the financial reporting law.
Harvey is now working out a compliance schedule with the comptroller’s office, Hahn said.
“So now that we have some teeth in the law, you can see that there’s a greater willingness to comply,” he said.
Nevertheless, there are still violators. Dolton failed to file the financial reports in 2012 and 2011. There’s a Dolton report filed for 2010 listing Riley Rogers as mayor, even though he wasn’t the mayor until this spring.
Dixmoor did not file financial reports in 2012 and 2011 but did file in 2010.
Hahn told me that the compliance rate is at 97 percent today, up from about 88 percent when Topinka took office. Topinka has made it a priority to get local governments to comply with the law.
And beginning this May all those reports must be filed electronically.
You can find them by going to the comptroller’s website, clicking on the tab labeled “Departments,” which will give you a drop-down menu that includes the words “Local Government Division.” Hover over that with a pointer, and you will get another drop-down menu with the words “view annual financial reports.”
It’s not the easiest site to use I’ve ever seen, but the information is now available to the public, provided there is any information from your village or city.
But it seems to me that making the information available to the public is only part of the battle.
If a city or government fails to comply, that suggests something may be wrong and there ought to be an investigation.
Topinka’s spokesman said that when the village of Washington Park failed to file financial reports for seven years, Topinka assigned an auditor to look at its books.
It turned out the village of about 5,000, located in southern Illinois, lacked financial documentation so the auditor couldn’t even put together a financial report. At that point, Topinka asked Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate.
Harvey’s lack of financial reporting has apparently not produced the same sort of red flags as Washington Park, and it is just possible there’s nothing wrong in Harvey. The city may simply have ignored the law.
The real question is why require financial disclosure with the state comptroller if the state isn’t going to have someone take a close look at the information.
There are a number of south suburbs in deep financial trouble. For years, I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any government agency that has the authority to play watchdog.
I’m talking about an agency or person who can sound an alarm if a village government is overspending or if funds are being used in ways that should scare local residents.
There’s a lot of media attention on big cities, such as Chicago, but not nearly as much focus on small suburbs such as Dolton, Dixmoor or Robbins — except when some scandal erupts.
By then it’s too late. Damage has been done. Scarce financial resources squandered. Taxpayers who can least afford financial penalties must ultimate pay the price for incompetence and corruption.
Topinka has come a long way toward creating the sort of oversight I’m talking about.
She has the financial reports on file with her office and now a law that allows her to fine local governments that fail to comply.
The last element needed, it seems to me, is a “local auditor” — someone who could use the information in the computers to identify red-flag communities. He could then produce a report that would warn the public of a town’s financial problems resulting from economic distress or official mismanagement.
I realize there are many concerned about making government bigger or creating new bureaucracies.
But the intent here is to save tax money, prevent scandals before they occur and provide people with the support they need to exercise their rights as citizens.
It’s no secret that newspapers have fewer resources than ever before to cover municipal government and conduct investigations into financial mismanagement. That’s not likely to change in the near future.
Topinka has shown she understands the need to make financial documents available to the public. The next step is to use those documents in a way that actually informs the public.
People often forget that elected officials in the suburbs are often just ordinary citizens, basically volunteering their time.
Rarely do they have the expertise to oversee a multimillion-dollar corporation, which is what many suburbs are today.
Financial reporting is a good thing. But people need help in making sense of the numbers.