September 4, 2013

Magistrate money may ease Murray financial burden

Rachel Brown

— Murray County officials may be in a better financial situation than they at first thought thanks to a nearly $243,000 mistake that was corrected Tuesday morning.

Chief Magistrate L. Gale Buckner said auditors who were examining some unclaimed money that accumulated between 2008 and 2012 recently determined the majority of it was from undistributed fees that belonged to Murray County government. Buckner, who took office in November 2012, said she presented the check to Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman on Tuesday.

Pittman said the money will go into the county’s general fund and will likely keep the county from having to borrow money as officials wait for property tax revenues to roll in. The county has cut its budget in recent years, and Pittman said the additional cash is welcome.

“We’ll use it in our general fund,” Pittman said. “We are trying to avoid having to take out a tax anticipation note to make it until we start receiving our collected revenues.”

Buckner was appointed to office last fall after former chief magistrate Bryant Cochran resigned under scrutiny over several alleged ethics issues unrelated to these financial issues. Buckner said soon afterward the magistrate court had about $300,000 that she didn’t know where they came from or where they should go.

Independent auditor R.M. Dobbs and Co. of Calhoun conducted an audit and discovered that most of the money was from various fees that the court collects that should have been dispersed into the county’s general fund but for some reason were kept.

Shortly after Buckner took office, three workers quit, claiming they were being “bullied” by Buckner, and they have been replaced. Buckner said there’s no evidence at this time that anyone intentionally mishandled the money.

The court’s 2013 budget is about $230,000, but when Buckner examined the bank account there was about $324,000 sitting there, she said. She said counties of similar size typically have only $40,000 or $50,000 in the bank at one time. She immediately started another bank account to keep the monies separate.

Buckner said she initially thought the money probably belonged to various beneficiaries, but even after unpaid beneficiary payments and garnishment payments were taken care of, there was still around $285,000 in the account, she said.

Some $242,710 was due to the county government in remittances, most of it because of an “underpayment of money... due to the miscalculation of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)” funds from 2008 to 2012, Buckner said in a news release.

The ADR funds are from $7 fees collected from a variety of sources and put into a program that helps parties resolve their issues without appearing in court.

Buckner said there were several items besides those related to ADR funds that were either underpaid or overpaid over the years, apparently because of unintentional human errors.

For example, the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Authority Cooperative was overpaid by $4,300, Buckner said, and the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund was underpaid by about $935. While Buckner said the Peace Officers fund has been taken care of, the level of time and documentation needed to recoup relatively small amounts of overpaid money means the magistrate court likely just has to deal with the consequences of the mistakes with the Authority Cooperative.

About $35,000 of the money will remain in an account in case there are more beneficiaries with documentation to show they are owed money. If no one claims the money within a few years, it will go into county coffers, Buckner said.

Buckner said she’s just glad to have the audit complete and the office back on a sound financial track.

“We are very accountable for the monies that we get into this court,” she said. “I want the public to be assured of that. At any time, our books are an open record.”