OUR OPINION: North Lee’s finances need stronger control

Problems in the North Lee County Water Association continue despite a wholesale reconstitution of the association’s board of directors and leadership in 2011 following revelations of mismanagement and illegal actions.

North Lee’s 2013 audit, required by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget because North Lee holds a federal loan derived from taxpayer funds, found irregularities, incomplete record keeping, unaccounted for funds and possible violations of federal regulations related to an outstanding loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The document is public record under federal law because of the federally required audit related to the taxpayer funded loan. Mississippi Rural Water Association CEO Kirby Mayfield said the audit is public record, as did a spokeswoman for USDA Rural Development in Jackson.

The Daily Journal obtained a copy of the audit through Sonny Noble, a former employee of North Lee. Noble was fired Friday morning, but North Lee officials refused to discuss the firing under the cloak of personnel record confidentiality. Noble’s firing happened the same day the Daily Journal published an article detailing audit findings of discrepancies and non-compliance with regulations. If, as clearly seems the case, his dismissal was based on providing the Journal with a public document, the termination of his employment is unconscionable.

North Lee’s board of directors, given the association’s past legal problems and management upheaval, should pay for a professional audit every fiscal year by an independent CPA firm. Then, those audits should be declared public, a measure that would help diminish perceptions the association shrouds in secrecy its internal operations.

North Lee, although a not-for-profit private association, functions as a public utility. It could not offer those services without the willing participation of federal loan programs, including plans to borrow an additional $8.9 million from USDA Rural Development – a public loan through a federal agency.

Further, because of North Lee’s reliance on federal loans for capital investment, the association should consider a federal relations position, perhaps as a contract position with an agency or firm skilled in federal loan/grant and financial practice management issues.

Board President Terry Anderson is correct in claming the issues can be cleared up, and there is no shame in hiring the professional expertise needed to ensure that everything is done in a correct and timely way.