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Analysis: Auditor wants improved use of accounting system

JEFF AMY

State Auditor Stacy Pickering says an increasing number of accounting problems shows state employees need more training in governmental accounting practices and how to use the $100 million accounting software system that the state turned on in 2014.

But maybe the more important question is, can anyone make recalcitrant agencies care?

That’s one main thrust of the findings that Pickering presented to reporters last week as he released the state’s 2017 comprehensive annual financial report . That document is intended to capture the state of all of Mississippi’s governmental finances in one place.

Pickering’s team listed 27 findings, or notable accounting problems, across all the agencies it examined for the 2017 report. That’s up from 23 last year, eight in 2015, four in 2014 and only one in 2013.

The Republican state auditor pegs many problems to the Mississippi Accountability System for Government Information and Collaboration. State agencies began using that accounting software system at the beginning of the 2015 budget year. Pickering attributes the increasing number of findings to employees who were undertrained on MAGIC, combined with a wave of departures of experienced accounting personnel from some agencies.

“It’s continuing to go up — it’s not getting better — three years after implementing MAGIC,” Pickering told reporters. “It’s only a matter of time until there’s a critical mass of findings that affect our state’s financial health and well-being.”

Pickering says the state implemented MAGIC “without spending a dime on training.” That’s clearly not true. The Department of Finance and Administration conducted waves of training classes for months in 2013 and 2014, saying it developed more than 35 separate training courses.

But what is true is that some agencies are clearly not using MAGIC correctly. For example, late last year, PEER noted that agencies are violating state law by failing to correctly enter data on vehicles. That in turn means DFA can’t manage state vehicles as envisioned.

Fully one-third of this year’s findings targeted DFA, although some of them are really about DFA’s inability to force independent agencies to comply with state law or policy.

Pickering says DFA has not fully updated its state accounting manual since MAGIC was turned on, which could lead agencies to handle the same information in different ways. It’s the third year in a row that DFA has been flagged for the problem. Executive Director Laura Jackson wrote in a response that DFA is still making updates, and now expects to be finished by the end of 2018.

The auditor also says some agency financial officers aren’t showing up for what’s supposed to be mandatory training by DFA, and calls for agency financial officers to have minimum qualifications. Jackson, though, wrote that it’s “difficult” to require attendance from agencies DFA doesn’t control, and says it has no oversight over hiring qualified employees.

Pickering was also critical of DFA turning off a software feature last spring that flagged unusual accounting entries for review. DFA now says it will turn “options and functions critical for monitoring” back on by April 1.

Pickering also blamed DFA for too many agencies failing to separate who sends out bills and who collects money, which can enable fraud when one person does both. That’s a particular problem in small agencies which may only have one or two employees. Jackson said DFA will rework software to further separate duties and provide more training.

The auditor, though, says he wants more long-term, ongoing training on using the accounting system, and says lawmakers should invest in a planned second phase.

“The Legislature still needs to go back and put some money into implementing MAGIC,” Pickering said.

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» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy.

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