Ross Jones’ family and friends honored his life in a memorial service at St. Helena’s Anglican Church last Friday. Ross was a retired Navy captain, and for 13 years he served also as the City of Beaufort’s comptroller.
Comptrollers are the ones who keep track penny-for-penny of the people’s money.
That readers may not recall Ross’ name is because he did such a good job. You only read about municipal comptrollers when they screw up. Ross never screwed up.
And, as always, this time, too, his timing was right on the mark.
While dozens of beloved Beaufort mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, grands, friends, and colleagues have over the past 16 months, because of the pandemic, gone to their graves without “celebrations of their lives,” Ross’ memory received a hearty celebration Friday.
It was well-deserved.
Honoring the life of a quiet, church-going family man who did his job gracefully and without complaint — a breed some say is all-too-quickly passing also into memory — Ross’ wife, Celeste, and their sons and grands were there to lead the remembrance. They were sorry because they’ll miss him dearly, but they were not sad. Their Ross had lived a good and full life. They know where he’s gone, and that they’ll be reunited with him There in due course.
I first met Ross Jones when he was hired by Beaufort City Manager John McDonough in the late ’90’s, but I got to know him well after I was elected mayor in 1999.
We had a routine at budget time. I won’t say we did this every June, but we certainly did it every June when the staff was recommending a tax millage increase for the upcoming fiscal year. The routine was the line-by-line review of the budget. Typically it was two 9 to 11 a.m. sessions back-to-back with Ross, the city manager and me with the door closed sitting around the little round table in the city manager’s office.
Here is the little cat-and-mouse game that most elected officials don’t bother to play. But if you want to try to run a lean, bare bones operation — and not put taxes up unnecessarily — you must do this. It is a natural government tension that must be confronted.
It is a fact that city managers rest easier when there is not only a healthy “contingency fund” in a budget, but also a little “fat” too. We all do similar maneuvers in our personal lives. We don’t wish to live without a financial cushion – a rainy day fund – if we can help it. But cities have taxing authority to cover their rainy days. Cities can’t get laid off from their jobs.
Beaufort’s contingency fund is there in black and white for all to see. But it takes some digging to find the fat, especially if able practitioners like McDonough and Jones are the ones who have tucked it away. But, because it is the people’s money, by law the fat too is there in black and white.
The favorite budgeter’s trick is a cousin of what’s called in the private sector “double-billing,” where in the municipal budget version an expense shows up in one part of the city’s budget, and then 100 pages later the same expense is shown in another part of the document. The city will only spend that money once, so the second line item becomes discretionary money that the city manager can use for unanticipated expenses. City managers don’t care for unanticipated expenses, but covering them with the fat from last year’s budget makes them go down the easiest.
One example of our talks I remember was an approximately $200,000 item for the renovation of the Arsenal Building. It could have been slightly more. The year was about 2002, and the city had several years before taken the crumbling Arsenal over from the county.
It was on the second day of our talks. I said, “Wait a minute, we paid this money yesterday,” as I fumbled through my copy of the proposed budget. The City Manager and the Comptroller sat silently. They were going to make me find the earlier line. More silence as I fumbled. Then finally, finding the earlier line, I said, “Here it is! Look right here. We paid this money already.”
Ross, quietly and with almost believable contrition, said, “Gee Mayor, that was my oversight.”
Indeed it was. He had overseen — at the city manager’s explicit direction I have no doubt — the tucking of that 200K item a second time into the back pages of the budget. McDonough never said a word. Ross had his back. And at the ensuing city council meeting the $200,000 find was chalked up to “a budget preparation oversight.”
Let me be clear. They teach this trick in City Manager 101. Everyone does it.
Who knows what else got by us? The city never came up short: that I know for sure. And, except by referendum, during Ross’ tenure the city council raised the millage rate only once, and that by just 1.5 mils. There were no “misuse of city money” scandals. The city rebuilt the streets and the sidewalks downtown. The city rebuilt most of its parks, including the Henry C. Chambers Park and the Pigeon Point Park. The city planned, funded, and built the Boundary Street municipal complex. And the city got the rest of the Boundary Street project planned, passed, permitted and funded too. There was more, but that list suffices.
And it was Ross Jones who kept track of every one of the taxpayers’ pennies that were spent on those projects.
Thanks Ross from a grateful city … for a job well done.
Bill Rauch was the Mayor of Beaufort from 1999 to 2008 and has twice won awards from the S.C. Press Association for his Island News columns. He can be reached at The RauchReport@gmail.com.