Placeholder, City Hall (copy)

City leaders in St. Joseph find themselves someplace they’d rather not be right now: In the cross hairs of a numbers whiz who helped uncover the labyrinth of wrongdoing within the St. Joseph School District five years ago.

What Beau Musser didn’t uncover as CFO of the St. Joseph School District was evidence of widespread criminal activity, despite a belief to the contrary among the general public.

The federal government rarely comes up empty when applying its full weight to an investigation. In the case of the school district, the feds ended with one count of wire fraud against former School Board President Dan Colgan, who served a term in a federal penitentiary.

But these investigations, from the FBI to the state auditor, revealed something that was just as bad. Past district officials and board members engaged in repeated acts to deceive the public in matters of school spending and procurement.

Musser, who now works in administrative services at City Hall, highlights a new series of concerns about financial issues in municipal sewer billing and general accounting controls. Unlike the school district, where the evidence pointed to intentional deception, he seems to have found something much different in city government: signs of incompetence and an inability of the left hand to grasp what the right hand is doing.

It’s about the most charitable thing we can say right now.

Surely, every city official is aware that sewer rates have increased at a pace that greatly exceeds wage gains and the level of inflation. This places a heavy burden on residents and businesses.

Maybe these rates are justified and inevitable, because of federal environmental mandates, but the minimum St. Joseph’s citizens can expect is that the revenue be collected consistently, justly and transparently.

Musser, in an email to the city manager and mayor, suggests that a billing oversight could be causing the city to miss out on nearly $1 million in revenue, while one commercial customer never received a bill after tapping into the city’s sewers more than five years ago. If true, this is an outrage.

Just as concerning is city officials’ tendency to point to glowing outside audit reports as a defense of its financial management. The school district once made the same case. For that matter, we once trusted credit rating agencies that gave a seal of approval to financial instruments stuffed with shaky mortgages.

We don’t smell wrongdoing here as much as bureaucratic rot. That brings hope that if the city spends as much time focusing on sewer billing as it does spinning these ugly details and circling the wagons looking for leaks, we could have 100 percent sewer billing compliance in no time.