By STEVEN NALLEY
The Starkville Board of Aldermen passed two motions Tuesday aimed at revamping the city clerk’s office in response to an $18,000 IRS penalty assessed after a deputy clerk’s failure to make a payroll tax went unreported in summer 2011.
First, the board accepted a request for qualification from T.E. Lott and Company as the city’s internal control consultant. Second, the board authorized the city clerk’s office to hire a temporary, full-time deputy clerk. Both measures passed with four votes in favor by Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas, Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker and Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver voted against the first measure together with Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, but Carver was absent for the vote on the second measure, leaving Perkins and Vaughn voting against.
Sistrunk said the internal controls would help the city address human errors like the one which led to the IRS issue, but Perkins said he did not approve what he described as privatizing tasks normally assigned to city staff. In his years as an alderman, he said, the city has repeatedly avoided such privatizing, and when it did privatize recycling and waste management, his fellow aldermen ultimately ended up fighting to put both back in the city’s hands.
“We have not done this in any other department,” Perkins said. “By privatizing, the board is proceeding to allow someone outside our government payroll to come in and monitor the administration and payroll of city clerk’s office. What this is saying is we don’t have confidence in the city clerk. If there’s a problem with city clerk’s office we can address that in executive session. If you start privatizing with sanitation you’re going to hurt the economy in terms of local jobs.”
Sistrunk said she did not see the internal controls as privatizing the city clerk office’s work, and she compared it to a more specialized form of the audits the city undergoes every year. She also said there are several tasks the city’s staff could avoid outsourcing but does not for practical reasons, such as the redevelopment authority steering committee’s functions.
“We’ve chosen to get outside help ... because we have limited staff available and we sometimes need outside help,” Sistrunk said. “I don’t think Mrs. Outlaw or anyone in the city clerk’s office has any reason to object to outside help.”
Perkins raised the same issues in response to the temporary deputy clerk item. City Clerk Markeeta Outlaw said having this deputy clerk would ease the transition period created by the internal controls, new software and departing employees, giving her time to develop a plan to reorganize her department. She said she thought about reorganization even before the IRS issue arose.
“Then, after we got into the budget, then auditing, various things in the office kept me from coming forward with it,” Outlaw said. “After the December incident is when Sistrunk said some of the other departments are reorganizing. So, I was going to bring that back forward. I’ll be two people short come Friday. With (the internal controls) going through, it’s going to be Grand Central Station in there.”
Perkins said he wanted to see and evaluate Outlaw’s plan before authorizing the hire because he did not want to risk more privatization in the city clerk’s office.
“I suggest we just tighten this belt until the next meeting and come back to the next meeting with a reorganization plan,” Perkins said. “Otherwise, I’m not going to vote for this tonight. I want to make sure the plan is going to work.”