In 2019, the #ColumbiaMo City Council decided water rate payers would pay around $1 million more. At the same time, a city water utility account with almost $3 million was hidden and unused for years, KOMU TV reports.

#CoMo city staff knew about the account.

Assistant Director of City Utilities Sarah Talbert said she searched for answers about the hidden account for seven months.

"We were working with Finance to determine if there was any documentation, as to why and who authorized that," she said.

Talbert couldn't find its original purpose or who put the money aside.

The investigation wasn't communicated to the City Council members before Council voted to raise water rates, 4 to 3.

Talbert told #KOMU that city staff did not feel the need to let the city council know about the account or the investigation.

Meanwhile, the city left its own Internal #Auditor and Treasurer positions unfilled for years, and a longtime city Finance Director suddenly quit during the 7-month internal investigation into the secretive account.

Julie Ryan and Marie Brown, who founded COMO Safe Water Coalition, have been questioning city utility finances for years.

"I think there have been too many questions of how the department was managing its finances," Ryan said.

Talbert and assistant city finance director Jim McDonald blamed the problems on "a lot of employee turnover," Talbert told KOMU.

Former Water and Light Advisory Board chairman John Conway said the hidden funds could have lessened a rate increase to city water customers.

"This is a financial resource to pay off bonds without increasing rates," Conway said. "Therefore, you're paying a greater water bill than needed because they're collecting more revenue than needed."

The four council members who voted for the water rate increase were Karl Skala, Michael Trapp, Clyde Ruffin, and Betsy Peters. Ruffin and Peters did not respond to comment requests.

Trapp said he doesn't regret his vote. "Based upon the information we had, we made the right decision," he said.

Skala said he wishes he knew about the hidden account, but it wouldn't have changed his vote to increase water rates. "Water and Light is a very complicated, serious, enterprise situation," he said.

Skala believes the unknown funds can create a "rainy day fund" and a financially healthier Columbia.

For customers like Julie Ryan, the $3 million account represents a frustrating pattern.

"I think we owe the citizens of Columbia," she said. The money "isn't benefiting their health, it isn't benefiting their drinking water quality, and instead it's sitting hidden in a spreadsheet."

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