Presidio City Council approves audits, looks optimistically to city’s financial future

PRESIDIO — At the Presidio City Council’s special meeting Monday night, the city approved audits for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Preston Singleton, a certified public accountant representing the firm Singleton, Clark and Company presented his findings to the meeting. Singleton’s firm was called in to help the city triage after the city administrator and auditor quit in the spring, leaving the city two years behind on approval of its audits. 

All eyes were on the city’s books after 2018, when an audit by Doak Painter came back adverse. An adverse opinion on an audit is the worst score an auditor can give, essentially saying that the city’s financial statements don’t represent its actual financial situation. The new audits conducted by Singleton, Clark and Company, however, marked the beginning of an upward trend. 

Fiscal year 2019’s audit was marked by a disclaimer, due to an “inability to obtain sufficient reliable evidence for opening balances for the year ending September 30, 2019, without further costs to the City.” After the 2018 adverse opinion and the upheaval in city hall, city officials had prepared themselves for a lackluster fiscal year 2019 report. Fiscal year 2020, however, came back positive, according to Singleton’s findings, with the city’s statements “representing fairly” its own financial outlook and accounting principles. 

Yearly city audits function much like credit scores do for individuals, but on a larger scale. The city’s chief financial officer, Malynda Richardson, learned this the hard way in 2019, when she applied for a grant for a new ambulance in her other role as the city’s EMS chief. The grant was denied when she was unable to provide the previous fiscal year’s audit, leaving the city in dire financial and medical straits. 

Richardson began thinking about taking on a more serious role in the city’s finances in 2020, when she applied for the same grant and was denied for the same reason. Though she no longer holds a license, Richardson was a CPA for over 20 years before getting involved in emergency medicine in the Big Bend. She offered her expertise to the city to help retrieve a timely audit. “I literally was like, ‘I will go in, I will do whatever you need to do,’” she recalled. Despite her requests to help the city prepare the paperwork needed for the grant, no audit was available by the deadline, and the city once again lost out on an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of dollars in desperately needed funds. 

Other city officials had been aware of problems with the city’s financial reporting years before Richardson’s ambulance funding woes. At Monday night’s meeting, Mayor John Ferguson remembered “the beginning of this nightmare” eight years prior, when audits started coming in chronically delayed. “All the council’s personnel over the years have tried their very best to get things back in order,” he said. 

While the city’s fiscal year 2020 audit was positive, Singleton offered a number of recommendations to the council to help keep the city on track in the years to come. “Do the bank reconciliations timely, do the accounting timely, don’t let it fall behind,” he advised. “If something goes wrong, you’ve only got to look back 30 days and figure out what happened. If it gets behind two, three, four, six months — that’s a lot more time to look back over.”

The most serious criticism Singleton offered to the council were weaknesses identified in the area of bank reconciliations, which ensure that payments have been processed and that balances are accurately recorded. “It looks like bank reconciliations were not really being done effectively,” he said. “It really is a big problem because your accounting is not guaranteed to be accurate.” 

In the time since fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the city has implemented a number of measures to guarantee that no details fall through the cracks, from larger scale projects like creating a role for Richardson as chief financial officer all the way down to quotidian quick fixes like looping in all city staff to the same electronic calendar. “I will point out that I think the city is currently on the right track and they’re addressing these things. I do think that things are turning around already,” Singleton said. 

His presentation earned a standing ovation from the council. “You guys are a breath of fresh air, after what we’ve been through these previous years,” said Councilmember Nancy Arevalo. The council also took the time to thank Richardson personally for working around the clock to steer the city’s financial accounting practices in the right direction. “It took a captain of the ship to get all the forces assembled,” Ferguson said. “It’s been a Herculean task.”

With considerable wind in their sails, council also discussed a proposal from the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to let Presidio lead Big Bend communities in transitioning municipal lighting to Dark Sky-compliant bulbs and fixtures. Dark sky ordinances aimed at protecting the night sky by outlawing certain types of outdoor lighting had been passed in many communities throughout the Big Bend, but funding had not been made available for each community to transition to the right equipment. In the summer of 2020, the Alliance raised $46,000 to begin to address the problem. 

Shelley Bernstein, executive director of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, and Brad Newton, Presidio’s city administrator, plan to work with AEP to install dark sky compliant lighting throughout the city. City officials have also been in contact with government leaders across the river, both in the state of Chihuahua and the city of Ojinaga. The measures will serve to protect the night sky in the Big Bend, which makes up the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve — an area larger than all the other Dark Sky Reserves in the world combined. As an added bonus, the new fixtures are energy-efficient and will likely save the city money in the long run. 

To round out Monday’s meeting, the council also appointed Arian Velasquez-Ornelas to serve as an interim council member to replace Rogelio Zubia, who stepped down from his position in November. Velasquez-Ornelas has a guaranteed spot on the council until May, and she plans to run for election to serve a full term. “For a while I’ve wanted to learn more about the way the city is run,” she told the council. “Both of my kids have graduated now and I have more time to focus.”

Velasquez-Ornelas was appointed by the council over Jesus Chavez and Alcee Tavarez. The council thanked all three of the applicants for their interest and hard work on behalf of the city. “I’ve been very impressed the past couple of meetings, Arian’s been here asking questions,” said Councilmember John Razo. “We know a lot of times people don’t come [to these meetings], and I’ve seen a lot of interest from Arian.”