Hancock County

Bay St. Louis mayor writes personal check to repay improper pay raises

By WESLEY MULLER

wmuller@sunherald.com

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JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILE 
 Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Filingame listens at a City Council meeting on Oct. 20.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILE Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Filingame listens at a City Council meeting on Oct. 20. SUN HERALD

BAY ST. LOUIS -- Mayor Les Fillingame admitted Monday that he reimbursed the city out of his own pocket for employee pay raises that a State Auditor's official deemed unlawful because the raises were authorized without City Council approval.

"It was my mistake," Fillingame said. "I failed to ask authorization the meeting before the increase and asked the Tuesday after they had been paid on Friday."

The raises went to four firefighters but had to be rescinded because Fillingame implemented them himself, a power reserved for the city council.

The mayor reimbursed the city with his own money, writing a personal check for more than $780.

"I didn't want to see them give the money back, so I gave the city the equivalent of the over-payment," he said. "It was my error."

Fillingame's error angered some council members, who feel the administration continues to withhold vital information from them, a point of contention that has divided much of the city into two factions -- those who support the mayor and those who support the council majority.

"He gave raises that were illegal and did not have council approval," Councilman Lonnie Falgout said.

Financial woes

The error comes on the heels of a report from the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor, which placed much of the responsibility for the city's financial woes on the mayor and his administration.

At a specially called meeting Thursday, an OSA official delivered the much awaited report that detailed findings from a two-month probe of the city's finances.

In December, the council called for the OSA to investigate the city's finances in light of numerous findings of deficiencies and noncompliance with state or federal regulations, which were identified in the 2013-14 fiscal year audit.

OSA Performance Audit Director Sam Atkinson reaffirmed those findings and identified four primary sources of the city's financial problems:

-- Poor internal controls

-- Lack of communication and information sharing between the mayor and council

-- Lack of written policies and procedures within city departments

-- The mayor and administration's failure to follow state statutes

"There have been some times where the mayor and staff failed to follow statutes related to municipal government," Atkinson said.

Whether or not it was done intentionally or by mistake, she said, "We can tell you, factually, there were times when statutes were not followed," resulting in the "types of financial findings that you had in the audit report."

Follow the council

Atkinson also addressed, among other things, the mayor's erroneous pay raises.

"We recommend that the mayor follow the direction of the council," she said. "Rescind the pay raises that may have been improperly provided and that were made in violation of state statute and which were not properly brought before the council for review and approval."

Atkinson said her team did not detect any evidence of fraud during their review.

The mayor said his administration is "always willing" to learn and implement systems that are more efficient and transparent. However, he said some of the OSA's findings are "not accurate."

"Information has never been withheld and we have stated at every opportunity that all information is available readily at City Hall," he said. "The problem at times is the manpower to duplicate and deliver the same information."

Atkinson, however, prefaced Thursday's address by stating her report is based solely on facts.

"This is not our opinion based on what we think, this is based on the facts that we were presented," she said. "I'm not going to apologize for what I'm going to say, and some of what I say, you may say, 'That's hard.' But I believe in the truth, and I believe in saying things in the way that nobody can misunderstand."

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