Problems of Dickensian measure

“You don’t consider me ill-used when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”

The words of Dickens’ beloved Scrooge, uttered to his down-at-heels bookkeeper Bob Cratchit one holiday eve of yore, came back to us this week after seeing the results of the latest state audit of Bainbridge Island city finances.

As reported Wednesday and again in this edition, our city did not fare well. The results were almost Dickensian in their comic absurdity – books so poorly kept that the state’s accountants could make little sense of them, with the audit simply left uncompleted. With financial statements for the years 1999-2000 thus “disclaimed,” the state’s chief financial office in effect refused to vouch for the soundness of the city’s financial position.

Came then the ghosts of audits past: late filing of financial information 18 years out of the past 20, and nine out of 10 years since annexation.

Of audits future? We shall find out in September, when the state’s report for the year 2001 is distributed. Until then, we find ourselves wondering:

Were his books found in such disorder, would Scrooge feel he’d gotten his farthing’s worth from poor Bob Crachit? To leave the metaphor behind, should Bainbridge taxpayers?

Administrator Lynn Nordby correctly refers to the audit as a report card, a decidedly bad one, for the city’s accounting practices. Viewed together with other problems that are coming to light – bills gone out for work done in the planning department more than a year ago – it seems to us a time to consider the city’s very functionality as an organization.

No doubt excuses aren’t far behind. We’ve already heard different accounts of the need for new software that will do this or that, to bring the finance department up to whatever standards. We find in this little cause for confidence; next year’s software will probably be out of date the year after that, leaving the city in an endless chase for technological wizardry that can never take the place of simple competence and care. Even poor Bob Cratchit made do with a ledger book and a quill pen.

We spoke with Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who cited the troika of her recent campaign – responsibility and vigilance in the fields of finances, law and emergency preparedness. Then she offered several thoughts that give hope for the future.

Too often, the mayor suggested, we islanders gravitate toward “big picture” issues – development, transportation, taxes – at the expense of the the nuts and bolts that make our city go. But what good are “process” and our grand schemes for growth management if service suffers? Of what benefit higher fees for this or that if they can’t even be collected?

When, she asked, do we make time in our dialogue to ask how the city can actually make life better for its customers?

Well, how about now? It’s been 10 years; we’re a maturing city. Let administration, staff and council consider, first and foremost, a philosophy of service.

For if his counting-house books looked like our city’s, we suspect not even a change of heart of Scrooge-like proportions could save poor Bob Crachit. That may be stretching the metaphor, but surely our city can give us more for our

farthings than we got this week.

If it can’t, God bless us all.

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