New Harlingen city commission majority calls for forensic audit

HARLINGEN — The city commission’s new majority is calling for proposals from firms conducting “forensic audits” to determine whether the city’s departments are running efficiently and “everything is on the up-and-up,” Commissioner Frank Puente said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Puente and Commissioner Rene Perez called for the external audit aimed at reviewing city departments’ internal workings.

The forensics audit would undertake “investigative activities,” Puente said.

“We have questions,” he said. “We just want to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. We’re not out for a witch hunt.”

Typically, cities call for forensic audits to examine financial records aimed at deriving evidence that could be used in court.

On Wednesday, Mayor Chris Boswell said he was not aware of any reason to call for a forensic audit.

“We tried to ask what the scope of the audit was,” Boswell said, referring to commissioners calling for the audit during Monday’s special meeting.

“Typically, somebody identifies some transaction that looks suspicious then you call in a forensic auditor,” Boswell said.

Auditors conducting the city’s annual comprehensive financial report along with the city’s internal auditor who reports directly to commissioners haven’t uncovered evidence to lead officials to call for a forensic audit, he said.

“ We have our regular city audit performed every year and our internal auditor,” he said. “Neither has brought to my attention anything that could require a forensic auditor.”

Checking for ‘efficiency, accountability’

On Wednesday, Puente said the commission’s majority is calling for a forensic audit to determine whether the city’s departments are running efficiently.

“Some firms will look into irregularities to show some room for improvement — what can we do better to get more efficiency and more bang for the buck to save taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“In some of the departments we want to see if there may be some deficiencies. We want to see if there could be more accuracy and accountability. It would be like going through the budget with a fine-tooth comb to see if we can iron out any wrinkles in the system.”

Puente said he wants to “justify” departments’ staffing.

“I don’t see anything in particular but I feel there are departments where an audit can tell us, ‘This is where we can improve’ — not eliminate positions but more combined responsibilities. I want to justify the line items in the budget.”

Puente pointed to the city attorney’s office, whose billings have climbed from about $300,000 to $600,000 since about 2013.

“I want to see how we’re being billed,” he said.

Commissioners to review auditors’ proposals

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Richard Uribe requested commissioners oversee the auditing firms’ selection process, calling for the board’s direct review of proposals rather than counting on staff’s ranking of qualifications.

“Is it possible to bypass the ranking system and have whoever submitted packages do direct interviews with the board?” he asked City Manager Dan Serna.

“I think it should come to the board — to see how they can help, what they have to offer and the length of time, what they charge — and let us make the determination and see if we want to hire someone or not. If we can save money — if we’re doing anything deficiently — then it may pay for itself. But those packages come straight to the board and we can meet and all set some type of interview process and give their presentation straight to the board.”

‘Very involved process’

Meanwhile, Serna pointed to a case in which a retired city manager charged $100,000 to conduct the audit of a 30-member city police department.

“The process you’re asking for is going to be a very involved process,” Serna told Uribe. “It’s going to be a lengthy process because they’re going to have to get into the weeds in every department area, if that’s the scope. If we’re asking someone to get into the weeds in every department throughout the city, not just finances but efficiencies, then that’s a very involved process.”