ERIE – Rodney Burns’ tenure as county auditor came to an unceremonious conclusion Wednesday when commissioners opted for Manhattan-based James Gordon and Associates CPA, P.A. The firm was Burns’ lone competition for the job after it had gone out to bid.
For months, commissioners had expressed a desire to embark upon a bid process. Commission Chair Gail Klaassen told The Tribune that the change was needed.
“It just always good to get a new set of eyes on your books, for any business,” she said. “We just felt like it was time to do that.”
Burns, County Treasurer Sydney Ball, and commissioners have not been on the same page when it comes to county finances. In a recent meeting, Burns appeared confused about the transfer of $900,000 in PILOT money from the Neosho Ridge windfarm and how it fit into the budget. Burns was ultimately corrected by Ball and commissioners.
“I’m not taking the fall for this one,” Ball said after the dust had settled.
Last year, commissioners also requested that Ball address a number of idle funds with cash balances, which led to extensive dialogue between her and Burns. Klaassen indicated that she has long been planning to replace him.
“One of the first things someone told me when I came on as commissioner (in 2020) was that it is good to have a new auditor just to have a fresh set of eyes on our books, and it’s taken me three years to have achieved that,” she said.
While the approval of the new auditor was also rubber-stamped by County Counselor Bret Heim at the previous meeting, a letter of engagement was inked by commissioners during Wednesday’s meeting. The three-year agreement pays an all-inclusive sum of $26,000 for the first year. Barring any revisions, the figure will remain the same for the length of the contract.
Representing the firm, Jacob Kujath delivered a preview of what’s to come.
“We will probably get started within the next week,” Kujath said of the county’s 2022 audit.
June is the target date for completion of the audit, and that report will help to provide a roadmap during the summer budget sessions.
“We will be looking at the 2022 information and comparing it with the 2021 audit report to make sure the balances are correct,” he said. “The first year always takes the longest, and hopefully smooth sailing after that.”
Klaassen noted that the commission was thrilled about the switch.
“We’re all on board and everyone is excited about the change,” she said.
Kujath told The Tribune that his firm brings a number of strengths to the table.
“We audit a multitude of counties and cities throughout Kansas,” he said. “We do quite a few larger counties and a couple of smaller cities.”
Klaassen believes those attributes make the firm a perfect fit for Neosho County.
“I did some research and have a lot of confidence in them that they can do smaller counties,” she said, adding that commissioners also interviewed Kujath prior to making the decision. “We felt like he was sincere and wanted to do our county.”
Commissioners voted 3-0 to replace the county’s server from Advantage Computers in Iola at a cost of $15,859.
“There is a lifecycle to servers and the lifecycle of this one needed to be addressed,” said Steve Prasko of Advantage Computers.
In addition to the new server, other line items contained in the quote included several software upgrades for the server, two external hard drives, and labor for instillation.
“We’re addressing three of those software components in this upgrade,” Prasko said. “Microsoft, just like old Windows versions, drop support, and you have to stay current with what’s supported from Microsoft.”
After approval, Klaassen requested Prasko’s presence for a closed executive session to discuss matters related to cybersecurity. Over the past several months, Klaassen has called several closed sessions to discuss the issue.
Prasko was vague about whether the county’s server had been attacked, and said that cybersecurity remains a national issue.
“Nationally is locally,” he said. “Nothing is 100 percent, so you have to kind of defend against it.”
Klaassen said she was being proactive and didn’t know of any specific problems.
“Not that I am aware of,” she said. “I’m just aware of other counties that have been hacked.”
County Clerk/HR Director Heather Elsworth requested that the commission greenlight Advantage Computer to commence a phishing project to better gauge the collective cybersecurity awareness of county personnel. Phishing is the practice of sending fraudulent emails disguised as reputable to gain personal information from an individual. This would largely be achieved through the HR Department’s monitoring of countywide email activity.
“Is the commission agreeable to this?” Elsworth asked. “Depending on the report and who doesn’t recognize a bad email from a legit email, then we could administer those (cybersecurity training) videos.”
“I think everyone countywide needs to have that education,” she said, noting that such training was mandatory during her previous stint as an employee at Neosho County Community College. “It’s just a good idea for everyone because there is stuff out there that is good to be aware of.”
Retirement request rejected
Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown informed commissioners that fuel mechanic Byron Foster will be retiring on Feb. 28. While he did not specify the number of years Foster had been with the county, Brown requested that Foster receive a parting gift in the form of a “$10 a year present.”
“Or bonus. Whatever you want to call it,” Brown said.
Klaassen noted that a small reception for retirees has been the norm.
“Usually, we’ve done both,” Brown said, “but Byron said he doesn’t want a party.”
Heim chimed in, noting that a tax withholding issue cropped up with the distribution of a previous bonus payout. Elsworth contended that the dialogue needed to be continued in closed executive session.
“I think the tax issue is the problem,” said Commissioner Nic Galemore.
Brown continued to press his case for the retirement bonus.
“In the past, they’ve just taken the tax out of it,” Brown said.
Following those remarks, Elsworth opted to discuss the topic in open session. She said the county’s policy is plentiful as far as benefits upon retirement.
“Especially when retiring, you get your sick, comp and vacation hours paid out to you,” she said. (The county is) paying all of that, so that’s the benefit.”
Elsworth acknowledged that Foster’s bonus would have amounted to a few hundred dollars, but indicated that the request was excessive.
“It’s not necessary, in my HR opinion, that it warrants that extra $10 (per year) outside of policy with what we are already giving — that again is taxpayer dollars,” she said.
Elsworth reminded commissioners that she had previously covered this ground with them.
“If they do stay with us until retirement, they’re getting their sick leave payout,” she said. “If you don’t stay with us at the county up to the age to retire, you don’t get the sick payout. You get your vacation and comp. So that’s the bonus, is that you get your sick payout. We already pay a nice benefit to our employees with this policy.”
Elsworth suggested a plaque as a parting gift.
“But as far as doing something outside of policy, in my opinion, it’s not the right thing to do,” she said.
In response to a question from Galemore, Elsworth said that the most recent retirement payout for a county employee was around $6,000 before taxes.
“But he had been here for 33 years,” Brown said of former Road and Bridge Department employee Ray Paulie.
Galemore said the payout essentially amounted to a bonus, but Brown continued to spar with commissioners.
“But it was earned time. He could have chosen to go on vacation for 6 or 8 weeks before he actually (retired),” Brown said.
Elsworth was done beating around the bush.
“My job as HR director is to stick to the policies, so that’s what I am sharing with the commission,” she said. “Our current policy does not support $10 additional per year. It already supports something that I believe is enough.”
Klaassen noted that the county’s benefits are rich and generous, adding that Foster will receive the newly-implemented $1 raise, backdated to Jan. 1, which she said will offset Brown’s pursuit of the $10 per year bonus.
“I think we need to start sticking to policy on this. Our benefits are very good, especially on the payout,” she said.
Galemore said that not sticking to policy sets a bad example.
“If we can’t stick to it, somehow it will bite us,” he said.
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