Accounts Deceivable?

The mayoral race makes city finance a (sort of) hot topic.

To speak of accounting is a torture so severe, it should be adopted into the penal code. Son, I'm giving you the option of 16 years in Lucasville -- or being seated next to an accountant at a dinner party.

Which is why the matter has received so little attention in the Cleveland mayoral race, though it may be the city's most pressing problem.

Consider what is euphemistically known as the city Finance Department, a place where blundering is viewed as competitive sport. When we last left the agency in August, it had just failed its fifth straight audit. State Auditor Jim Petro discovered the city had transferred $131 million to the wrong bank accounts. It wasn't balancing its books. It was making purchases without knowing if it had the money to cover them. And though it handles $1.4 billion annually, it couldn't say exactly where it all was.

Finance Director Kelly Clark tried to run a positive spin: "There was no fraud, no theft uncovered." You know standards are low when an absence of felony charges is cause for celebration.

But the department wasn't exactly cleared of malfeasance. In truth, Petro deemed the accounting methods so wretched, it was impossible to tell whether Cleveland's been ripped off or not. No one knows, for example, what happened to $1.5 million in car parts missing from the city garage.

Still, the fact that the city practices the fiscal controls of a crackhead has received but minor mention in the mayoral race. For good reason. Statements like "I promise to adhere to superior accounting principles" don't bring roaring applause at the Teamsters hall.

Yet County Commissioner Jane Campbell has a plan. She's already talked to Cleveland's three largest accounting firms, and all have agreed to commit time and people -- free of charge -- to cure what ails. Now, The Edge doesn't buy the private-sector-is-always-better thesis. But at least these people are real CPAs, with calculators and everything, which would be a marked step up from the White administration.

Ray Pierce did not return repeated calls. Yet, even if he plans to keep the city's books on a bar napkin, it should be an improvement. The Edge's hope is that, someday soon, Finance workers will be able to stop answering the phone, "Department of Startling Ineptitude, may I help you?"