Columbus Finance Department audit reveals missing millions in fees


Olivia Yepez and Chuck Williams

An internal audit revealed over $45 million missing. The Columbus Finance Department said the number is closer to $2 million. (Olivia Yepez)

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — The main topic of the morning: money. City officials conducted an internal audit of the Columbus Finance Department under the supervision of Donna McGinnis, the city’s full-time internal auditor and compliance officer. Audit findings revealed Columbus is missing over $45 million in funds, however Columbus Director of Finance Angelica Alexander disputed the claim.

According to Alexander, the missing amounts totals $2 million in fees from 500-plus pending accounts. Councilors were equally concerned and puzzled as they attempted to reconcile the drastically different numbers, viewing presentations by both McGinnis and Alexander.

“There is no missing money in the revenue base to the tune of $45 million dollars,” said Alexander, adding that the missing $2.5 million comes as a result of complications due to understaffing during the pandemic.

According to the city’s director of finance, the finance department failed to send delinquency courtesy notices to businesses from 2020 to 2022. The delinquency notices would have gone to businesses which had failed to pay license renewal fees needed to operate.

McGinnis, who worked with Atlanta law firm Troutman Pepper and five whistleblowers to reach the findings of her audit, told councilors the money is not necessarily missing cash, but rather “unrealized opportunity.” Much of the total comes from un-accessed credit card authorizations and stale checks, which cannot be cashed as early as 90 days after authorization.

The internal auditor explained the resultant loss of millions is the result of a failure to recognize critical staffing needs and sloppy record-keeping, but not criminal activity.

Councilor Glenn Davis of District 2 called the oversight “gross negligence.” According to Davis, it is not just the money which is a concern but the fact it may never be collected.

“We’re so far down the road, it will be almost impossible to collect the money you’re talking about,” Davis said.

Councilor JoAnne Cogle of District 7 and other councilor questioned why Alexander had not called for staffing help sooner. Others were concerned why business renewal letters were able to be sent out during pandemic years while delinquency notices were not.

According to Alexander, the Finance Department tracks payments using a variety of Excel spreadsheets for renewals, delinquency, “lockbox”-ed payments and closed businesses. As payments come in, items get moved from one spreadsheet to another accordingly, however there is no comprehensive spreadsheet detailing each of these components.

Asked whether one could be created by the end of the week by Councilor Tyson Begley of District 10, Alexander said it may not be possible this week.

City Council proceedings are still underway as councilors await the findings of the external audit by Troutman Pepper. A partner of Troutman, Charles Peter is present at the meeting and has given the council multiple updates, all of them in executive session.

Getting to the bottom of the missing money remains a priority at the meeting.

Davis said, “We need to clear up this $45 million.”

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