The results of an audit of Howell County by Missouri State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick was released Friday, showing a rating of "good" despite finding some concerns with the county's financial practices.
Those concerns included one related to commissions on surtax and railroad and utility taxes collected for cities retained for the year ending Feb. 28, 2022, a violation noted as similar to one found in 2019, the last time the county was audited under the administration of former State Auditor Nicole Galloway. Howell County received a "good" rating then as well, indicating the state auditor's office considers the county is well managed and is working to implement most or all of the recommendations made in the audit.
The only higher rating awarded by the state auditor's office is "excellent," given in the event of a report with no findings and, if applicable, prior recommendations were implemented.
A full copy of the audit addressed to the Howell County Commission and Howell County officeholders notes the report included, but wasn't limited to, information from the year ending Dec. 31, 2021. Audits included information gathered from meeting minutes, written policies and procedures, financial records and other pertinent documents; interviews with various county personnel; and sample testing as appropriate.
The routine audit found the former county collector had improperly withheld and personally kept commissions on surtax and railroad and utility taxes collected for cities.
A 2019 state audit of Howell County found a similar violation of state law. Responding to current auditor recommendations that the county collector “discontinue personally retaining commissions withheld on surtax and railroad and utility taxes and distribute these collections in accordance with state law,” current Collector Janet Crow is quoted in the report saying she agrees with the findings and has stopped the practice immediately upon assuming the office in April.
Prior to her election the office was held by Dennis Von Allmen, who chose not to seek reelection.
The auditor's office found during the year ending Feb. 28, 2022, Von Allmen "withheld and personally retained a 3% commission and retained a penalty charge added to delinquent taxes from surtax and railroad and utility taxes for the cities of West Plains and Willow Springs." The commissions totaled $4,051, Fitzpatrick found.
Collection of the surtax and railroad and utility taxes is a part of the county collector's legally required duties, and he should not have received additional compensation for collecting them, auditors said..
Crow's response to the finding reads, in part, "As the newly elected county collector of Howell County, I agree with the auditor's findings that commissions should not have been personally retained on surtax and railroad and utility taxes collected for the cities, and I ceased this practice immediately upon taking office."
Von Allmen’s response was also included in the audit, in which noted that the cooperative agreement for the collection of those commissions was made nearly 40 years ago in 1984, and had not been an issue until 2019 — even after 12 routine state audits and roughly 60 independent audits. After the criticisms raised during the 2019 audit, Von Allmen said, he reached out to three “prominent attorneys” with “much respected law firms” in Missouri and outside of the local area, who all reached the conclusion that the agreements were proper.
However, the auditor's office commented their concern wasn't whether or not the agreements were proper and acknowledged such agreements were necessary, but that personal commissions should not be received by the collector and instead must be distributed to the county's general revenue fund.
The audit also found the county did not properly report property tax levy reductions to the state auditor's office, accurately calculate property tax reduction amounts or consider whether transfers were needed to the Special Road and Bridge Fund to replace lost property tax revenue.
In summary, by state statute, counties are required to reduce property taxes for a percentage of sales tax collected. Beginning in 2017, Howell County voters enacted a half-cent sales tax with a provision to reduce property taxes by 50% of sales taxes collected, and to estimate annual property tax levies to meet the reduction requirement. The county is then to provide for an adjustment based on actual sales tax collections of the preceding year and whether they are more or less than the estimates for that year.
Fitzpatrick's office found the county did not properly report property tax reductions for 2018 through 2021, only certifying sales tax reductions for both the General Revenue Fund and Special Road and Bridge Fund levies.
In those instances, the audit found the inaccurately calculated property tax reductions and reported them as sales tax reductions rather than voluntary reductions. Additionally, Fitzpatrick reported, county officials erred in not considering whether transfers from the General Revenue Fund to the road and bridge fund were needed to replace lost property tax revenue, depositing all sales tax revenues into general revenue and none to road and bridge, despite a reduction in the latter’s levy affecting the funds designated specifically for improving and maintaining county roads and bridges.
The audit adds the county clerk and commission members said they set the rates lower than required for the sales tax reduction "but were unfamiliar with the need to separate the reduction into a voluntary and sales tax reduction component, and they were unaware of the requirement to account for the difference between estimated and actual sales tax reductions or transfer sales tax revenues from the [General Revenue Fund] to the [Special Road And Bridge Fund] for any lost property tax revenues."
In response to that finding, Howell County officials said, "Howell County has a long tradition of upholding a commitment that was made long ago to the citizens of the county, that if they passed a sales tax, the county commission would do everything they could to keep the general revenue tax levy at 0.0000, and as low as possible for the Special Road and Bridge Fund. Since 1985 the county has used an equivalent equation to arrive at the current levy of 0.0000 for general revenue, even though we could set the levy at a higher rate. The calculation was a benefit to the citizens of Howell County and was a financial disservice to the county. The county will review the recommendation from the State Auditor's Office (SAO) when setting our levy for the upcoming year; however, following the SAO's recommendation may result in an increased levy in subsequent years."
Fitzpatrick commented that proper reporting may indeed result in changes to the calculations in future years, but the county can still take voluntary reductions, and state statute provides a pathway for commissioners to raise the tax rate in the year following a reduction, if needed.
Additionally, the report noted the county has not developed a records management and retention policy that includes electronic communication in compliance with the Missouri Secretary of State Records Services Division, as approved by the Missouri Local Records Commission. Electronic communications include messages sent via text message, email and third-party platforms.
A specific request was made by the auditor's office for the development of a written policy to address the use of electronic communications, necessary to ensure all documentation of official business of the county is retained as required by state law. While the audit was in progress, auditors noted county commissioners indicated they were unaware of those requirements and guidelines.
Commissioners, responding to the audit, said the county has contracted with an information technology firm to analyze its cybersecurity and develop policies and procedures to address the use of electronic communications.
Full audits, including comments made by officials and details of findings, may be viewed by going online to auditor.mo.gov and clicking on "Audit Reports" in the "Audits" drop-down menu, then entering the county name in the search bar.