Whoa there, Billings City Council.
You know there's something wrong when city leaders start to heap praise on public records watchdog Kevin Nelson, a frequent attendee of government meetings and oftentimes critic of local politicians.
We appreciate Nelson who is often snooping around public records and making himself persona non grata by asking tough questions about touchy subjects.
So when Nelson was praised for uncovering an accounting error that almost resulted in a six-figure misappropriation of government funds, it caught our attention.
But not quite as much as the eye-popping antics surrounding the South Billings Urban Renewal District.
From our reporting, the district's director was overpaid by nearly $80,000. Two huge payments, in excess of $35,000 each were given to him and only caught after a full audit.
While the SBURD, as it's abbreviated, has its own board and mission, its oversight is in the hands of the Billings City Council, and it has tax funds at its disposal -- nearly $80,000 of which has mistakenly went into the account of its director, Steve Zeier.
It should be noted that these funds aren't just some nebulous government pot of money. Business improvement funds are specifically taken from local property taxes and set aside for redevelopment. The idea is that reinvestment in certain areas will lead to higher property values thereby generating even more taxes in the future.
Critics of tax-increment financing argue that data on such ventures is speculative, and the funds used by these districts siphons money away from other necessary projects like roads and schools. In Montana, the challenge is even more acute because we rely so heavily on property taxes.
Nonetheless, when the accounting mistakes were caught -- by a member of the public -- the city and the SBURD board rushed to figure out what happened. While we applaud them for a forensic and comprehensive look at the situation, it is disturbing how easily this seemed to have happened.
We'd point out that Zeier received more money from these "double payments" than most folks in Billings make in a year. We would argue it would be hard -- if not impossible -- not to catch such a glaring mistake. This isn't about an extra 10 bucks. This is about tens of thousands of dollars.
What's even more frustrating is that apparently the city and the district has arranged to let Zeier gradually pay the money back. For some reason, the city believes it's a personal bank.
What's even more surprising is that leadership at all levels seems comfortable with this arrangement--- leaders at the board level and leaders of the city council.
We're wondering if the trust is irrevocably changed after this incident. Without the audit or the watch-dogging, we can only assume nearly $80,000 in taxpayer funds would have been misappropriated.
And why is Zeier allowed to pay the amount back over time instead of going to a bank and getting a loan immediately? That money was not his in the first place, and it belongs back under the SBURD control. How many people would love it if their employer could also play bank?
But the truth is: It's not the city's money and it's not the SBURD's money. It's the taxpayers' money and it deserves to be working for them, not having it worked off.
We believe the city council is also trying to run away from this embarrassing mishap as quickly as it can. But, ultimately because these are tax funds under the city's direction, the responsibility falls to the city. And, the council members would do right to start asking some more questions rather than having the city administrator pronounce the mystery solved. Where's the silent city council? Where's the leadership? Where's the accountability to the taxpayers?
Billings business leaders have supported the concept of redevelopment funds as a necessary tool for economic growth. But, this sloppy finance and questionable decision by the board makes us wonder: Is it time for something different?
If most of us had taken $80,000 from our employers without a peep, we wouldn't get to pay it back, we'd be behind bars.