Auditor keeps county on straight and narrow

Auditor keeps county on straight and narrow

June 5th, 2011 by Dan Whisenhunt in News

Hamilton County Auditor Bill McGriff sits in his office at the Newell Office Tower on Seventh Street in downtown Chattanooga. Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Hamilton County Auditor Bill McGriff knows where the money is. He's been keeping track of county taxpayers' funds for 36 years, before the current form of county government even existed.

He has audited friends, cost people their jobs and put people in jail.

County commissioners say McGriff has done the job well.

"He stays up on the issues," Chairman Larry Henry said. "He's very informative. He's very dedicated to his job."

"He knows where every penny is," Commissioner Greg Beck said.

McGriff serves two masters: commissioners and the county mayor.

It was a sharing arrangement hammered out in the early days of the switch from a county council-manager form of government to the county mayor form in 1978. Elected officials didn't want the auditor to be used as a political weapon to undermine one another.

Still, McGriff knows there are some things about his job that are inherently political. At 63, he can recite county history chapter and verse, chewing thoughtfully on the stem of his glasses. He rags on himself whenever he can, often ending a point he's trying to make with a self-mocking laugh.

"I tell people the definition of an auditor is the guy who goes out on the battlefield after the battle is over and shoots the wounded," McGriff said.

He sports a tidy gray mustache and always keeps a pack of smokes and a couple of pens in his pocket. A placard rests on a shelf in his office, a room cluttered with pictures of his wife, parents, children and grandchildren.

"To avoid criticism," it said, "Do nothing. Say nothing. Be nothing."

McGriff said it's good advice.

"It means you've got to be prepared to say what you think and not worry about criticism," McGriff said.

But McGriff is worried. Not about the criticism, though he's received his fair share of that over the years. He knows he's getting older. His mom and dad, both in their 80s, are getting older. He has grandchildren in Kingsport, Tenn., where his son Jim is a manager in training at Eastman Chemical. His daughter, Beth, is an event planner in Chattanooga. Now more than ever he has reasons to hang it up.

He's been eligible to take his county pension for the last five years. He could stop working tomorrow and retreat to the woods of his native Alabama, where he likes to hunt and fish with his daddy.

"I think about it from time to time," he said. "I've advised people for years, if you have a hobby you enjoy doing, you need to retire sooner. You'll live longer. But if work is your hobby, you need to work as long as you can. I don't think work is my hobby."

But, he points out, it is interesting.

Alabama boy

McGriff grew up in North Alabama. His dad worked for the railroad and the family moved all over the South. One of his father's many transfers brought him to Chattanooga, but his family decided to make their home just over the state line in Bryant, Ala., on Sand Mountain.

He got his bachelor's degree at Florence State University, now the University of North Alabama, an accounting major with a minor in economics. Afterward he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and served two years as a finance officer for Uncle Sam. When he was stationed in Baltimore he met his wife, Marti. They've been married 40 years.

He moved back to Chattanooga after he left the Army in the early 1970s for his first job as a cost accountant. In 1975 he heard County Auditor Don Downey was looking for an assistant. McGriff didn't have any connection to county government.

"I didn't know any elected official when I got hired here," McGriff said.

McGriff said he had tried accounting in the public and manufacturing sectors. He figured the next logical step was government. After that, he thought he'd move into retail. It didn't work out that way.

"It was fun," McGriff admits. "It was interesting. You certainly kept up with current affairs."

McGriff said he moved to the top "pretty quick," becoming auditor when Downey left in 1979.

Former County Executive Dalton Roberts said he enjoyed a good working relationship with McGriff.

"He's not flashy and he doesn't try to impress anybody, but he's solid and when you give him something to do he does it well," Roberts said.

But it wasn't long before McGriff found out that being the county's financial policeman had certain drawbacks. He was just doing his job when he audited his former boss.

Following the money

"Downey had moved on to be the assistant superintendent of finance and administration at the county school system," McGriff said. "There were lots of allegations against him."

McGriff couldn't personally oversee that 1982 audit because of the perceived conflict of interest. So the county hired a certified public accounting firm to head it up, though his staff did most of the work. He worked with law enforcement including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. General Services Administration investigator. At the end it was decided that not only had Downey not committed any crimes, but the school board didn't have enough evidence to fire him, McGriff said.

"Downey got up at that meeting and said, 'I've been vindicated,' and resigned," McGriff said.

Fortunately, McGriff said, Downey was a CPA and understood what the county auditor's role is. Other public officials didn't.

In the early '90s, McGriff spearheaded an investigation that put the county's purchasing director, Jim Farley, and one of his buyers in jail for keeping money from cash sales of surplus property.

"We never were positive how much was stolen," McGriff said. "We could prove $50,000 was missing."

Other cases never rose to the level of criminal offenses but cost people their jobs. The county fired an accounts receivable clerk on suspicion of stealing $5,000. The charges could never be proved, but when the clerk was gone the problem went away.

"That's the interesting part of the job," McGriff said. "A lot of it is tracking numbers. What we do is mainly performance auditing."

McGriff said his three goals are to make sure county programs are operating as efficiently as possible, achieve the goals of the commission and mayor and suggest ways to make the county's operations better.

"We are helping the taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck," McGriff said.

McGriff said his proudest moment in the job had nothing to do with catching people taking county money.

In 1984, he became a self-styled expert in the costs of keeping prisoners in county jails.

McGriff said he did a cost analysis for the county's negotiations with a private company, Corrections Corporation of America, to run the county's Silverdale Workhouse. The company still operates the facility, and the county used McGriff's study to negotiate a daily rate for keeping prisoners.

"As a result of that, I testified before a committee set up by the state Legislature to study the cost of keeping prisoners," McGriff said.

McGriff said his findings were also published in the National Institute of Justice Journal.

"I got calls from the governmental accountability office in Washington, D.C., wanting copies of the study," McGriff said. "I got calls from England and Australia. It was a pretty big deal."

Bigger dreams

When Roberts retired in 1994, McGriff flirted with running for mayor. He had seen county government up close, knew who the players were and knew how budgets worked.

"After being so close to it for a number of years, you tend to develop your own ideas," McGriff said. "There was no announced person to run after Dalton. He told me to go for it."

Then county Assessor of Property Claude Ramsey got into the race.

"He had been in public office for the better part of 22 years," McGriff said. "He was probably the most popular local politician, him and County Clerk Bill Knowles. Once he announced I knew discretion was the better part of valor at that point in time."

Ramsey served until early this year, when he joined the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, and McGriff moved on from his loftier ambitions. His day-to-day goals have always been more personal.

"My philosophy has always been if you treat people the way you want to be treated and treat all people with respect, you won't have too many problems," McGriff said.

By all accounts McGriff has a comfortable job, a $125,000 annual salary, the support of the mayor and County Commission. He's happy with his staff.

He's also got new challenges: helping educate five new commissioners and a new mayor on the ins and outs of county finance.

He could quit any time he wants. He looks at the pictures of his family and it crosses his mind.

But there's just something that holds him back, something he can't trace as easily as a missing $5,000.

"I think a lot of people don't retire because it's fear of the unknown," he said, chewing on the end of his glasses. County government is what he knows.

"If I leave, the thing I'll miss is I've got really good people here."