Friday, March 24, 2017
[Kern County] Cemetery District loses $60,000, gets slammed by grand jury
The North Kern Cemetery District doesn’t usually get a lot of outsider attention.
It’s getting it now after the Kern County grand jury released a scathing report Tuesday documenting a nearly $60,000 loss of district cash and other problems at the agency.
The district provides cemetery plots to the people of Delano, McFarland, Pond and Famoso and brought in more than $961,000 in revenue in 2014-2015.
The report outlined the loss of district money, land disputes with neighboring farmers, public fights between members of the district board, lax financial security and potential violations of the state's open meetings law.
Most noteworthy, the grand jury’s Special District’s Committee found the district lost $58,495 between July 2013 and November 2014 and the culprit has not been identified.
Karen O’Neil, an attorney for the cemetery district, said district auditors discovered the losses and immediately reported them to the Delano Police Department.
Investigations by police, a special investigator hired by the district and by the district’s insurance company have been conducted.
“The independent investigator concluded there was a loss but (the report) was inconclusive as to which person was responsible,” O’Neil said.
The insurance company paid off the $60,000 loss, she said.
Grand jury members blamed the loss on the district’s lack of financial controls, lack of reliable audits, and general poor management.
O’Neil said the board members immediately made major operational changes and have continued to improve the district’s fiscal safety over the past two years.
But the problems were stark and serious, according to the 35 findings in the grand jury report.
• Agendas and minutes didn't exist for every meeting of the five-member district board.
• Some district actions and communications seem to violate the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
• The cemetery district is reportedly a hostile work environment.
• Three different accounting firms have worked on district finances in the past five years. The first two firms didn’t identify the loss of the cash.
• The accounting firms have not always completed the legally required audits.
• Cash, checks and other money paid to the district was left in a vault that was open during the day and vulnerable to anyone who walked into the district office.
• Deposits of money into the bank were made only infrequently — every week or every other week.
• A local farmer may have encroached onto district property, planting crops there.
The grand jury recommended the cemetery district revamp its cash handling, secure its vaults, ask the Kern County Board of Supervisors to appoint new members to the board, and review and comply with all state law.
O’Neil said the district has stopped accepting cash payments, segregated its money handling so more than one person controls funds from when they are received to when they are deposited, installed a secure safe in the vault and is working to improve all aspects of the district’s operations.
She said she and district leadership will fully review and investigate the grand jury’s findings and prepare a detailed response.
March 21, 2017
By James Burger