Auditor: County finances OK

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 22, 2002

Darwin Viker became a hero Wednesday night.

An unlikely one at that.

Viker is a certified public accountant for Larson, Allen, Weishair & Allen with more than 20 years experience and a specialist in auditing financial records of local government entities.

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On Wednesday night, Viker gave government officials and citizens unflinching data about Mower County's finances.

Since 1998, Mower County has been criticized for having an excessive fund balance. When the criticism reached the local coffee shop, taxpayers reacted with anger.

And when citizens, such as Malcolm McDonald took the information to public meetings, the news made everyone squirm.

At Wednesday night's special meeting, McDonald and a room full of other questioning citizens and city of Austin officials heard Viker say, in effect, "it ain't all bad."

He also reinforced the county board's strategy of exercising caution in spending down the fund balance.

Lastly, he said, the county needs a full-time finance director to steer the county on a course of financial stability in the future.

And, despite the perception that Mower County is "cash rich," Viker said the county has been engaged in deficit spending for the last three years.

If that contradicts everything taxpayers thought they knew about Mower County finances, go figure.

That's what Viker did in reaching his conclusions.

According to the accountant, the county's total fund balance for all funds stands at $334,242,465 for the latest reporting year, 2000.

The general fund's fund balance

is an estimated $16,446,745 for fiscal 2002.

Viker defended keeping a high fund balance in order to meet cash flow needs, unexpected situations and higher than usual tax delinquencies.

He said counties without a healthy fund balance "have to borrow on a short-term basis to meet cash flow needs."

Also, Viker said, funds on hand give counties the opportunities to generate addition income through the interest earned on investments.

Since 1997, Mower County's interest income has ranged from

the $1 million budgeted for 2002 to $3 million-plus in 2000 and 2001.

He concluded from his examination of the county's finances, that Mower County is currently deficit-spending.

Also Viker concluded the county needs to establish a fund balance policy and enhance its long-range financial planning with a full-time finance director's hiring.

The question and answer session after Viker's presentation disputed the accountant's assertions.

Jim Hartson, a rural Waltham farmer, raised questions about the county's role in assisting a private business at Dexter.

Bob Goetz, retired fraternal benefits society sales representative, wanted to know more about the net tax capacity of Mower County.

McDonald, a retired Austin Public Schools special education director, wanted to know who is in charge of the county's finances and was told its a combination of people: county coordinator Craig Oscarson, county treasurer Ruth Harris and county auditor Woody Vereide.

Sandy Forstner, Austin Area Chamber of Commerce director, questioned the $9 million in the general fund's adjusted fund balance. The general fund is the largest of all the county's funds.

Patrick A. McGarvey, Austin city administrator, disputed Viker's assertion there is no legal way of giving back the money; i.e. distributing the fund balance to citizens.

When the two finally agreed it could be done with tax relief, an audible sigh was heard from the audience.

McGarvey also zinged the county for its 145 percent of funds held in reserve as a fund balance while the city and other local governments hold 45 percent in reserve.

Austin City Council member at large Dick Chaffee's commented that the public trust was at stake, when so much money is in the hands of "a few people."

After three and a half hours of back and forth questions, the meeting ended.

Len Miller, 4th District county commissioner and chairman of the county board, told everyone, "We're trying to go in the right direction."

(Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at