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Philadelphia finds $21 million accounting error in its quest for ‘missing’ $33 million

A $21 million city accounting discrepancy was resolved earlier this month as financial auditors worked to reconcile the $33.3 million that was reported earlier this year. The reconciliation team says most city accounts are settled, with $2.1 million left to resolve.

The color of money might be slightly blue.
The color of money might be slightly blue.Read moreiSTOCKPHOTO

Philadelphia officials say they have found a big chunk of the unreconciled $33 million that sent accountants on a yearlong hunt for the money.

Last week, accountants figured out that seven debt payments totaling $21 million had been paid from the wrong account, throwing off the city's books.

The $21 million is part of the  $33.3 million in unaccounted-for funds reported earlier this year. It wasn't clear at the time whether the money was missing or misreported as the result of accounting mistakes. City Treasurer Rasheia Johnson said Tuesday that it was the latter.

So far, no money has been found to be missing or owed in payments, Johnson said. The money was for the most part deposited or paid from accounts different from where the transactions should've occurred.

The reconciliation team, which includes city accountants and outside help, say they have settled most of the accounts and have $2.1 million left to resolve. They expect to have that done before the end of the year.

City officials, however, are not holding anyone responsible for the errors.

"We're not immune to making mistakes. Mistakes happen, I wouldn't say often, but sometimes," Chief of Staff Jim Engler said Tuesday. "The key part about when we make mistakes is that we acknowledge it."

Previous audits had pointed to the city's sloppy bookkeeping, and two years went by between 2014 and 2016 without monthly reconciliations of accounts, allowing mistakes involving millions of dollars to pile up. When Johnson came into office in 2016, she went to city Finance Director Rob Dubow about the unbalanced accounts, which soon after were discovered to have $40 million in discrepancies between what the bank accounts showed and what the city reported in its records. Johnson's staff worked to reconcile those accounts.

During the spring budget hearings, Councilman Alan Domb brought up that the city's 2017 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), released in February, noted that $33.3 million was unaccounted for (down from the initial $40 million).  Then came a scathing audit from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who said Philadelphia has the worst accounting practices among the nation's 10 largest cities; she blamed the mistakes on the Finance Department's reduced staff and lack of technology.

The Kenney administration hired Horsey, Buckner & Heffler (the firm is to be paid up to $500,000 for its work) and created a task force to help reconcile the $33 million. The city also started monthly reconciliations between the books and bank records to catch future accounting mistakes before they become a problem.

"With the amount of transactions the city has in our accounts on a monthly basis, if you're not reconciling on a monthly basis, they accumulate like this has over time," Johnson said.

Dubow, who also served as finance director during the Nutter administration when the reconciliations stopped, said Tuesday what he has said in the past: "They should've been done and they weren't, and we're doing them now."

Aside from the $21 million in seven misplaced debt payments, accountants also found that a $4 million payment was mistakenly recorded twice due to an initial bounced check. In other unaccounted-for transactions, amounts had been entered incorrectly in the books or deposited into the wrong account.

Johnson said she has hired two additional accountants to continue the reconciliations (plus a third to be hired soon) and is searching for a new deputy treasurer to oversee the process.

She and Dubow expect a full reconciliation of the money by the end of the year, at which point a report will be released detailing the work done and the policies put in place to prevent such mistakes in the future.

As to the question of whether anyone will be fired over the $40 million in accounting mistakes, Engler said: "No, that's not how we operate."

Correction: A previous earlier version of this story inaccurately described a $4 million payment as not being received.