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Montee sides with Public Administrator Nester in longstanding financial fight

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 28, 2010 - Missouri state Auditor Susan Montee has jumped in the middle of a decade-old dispute at St. Louis City Hall, by releasing an audit Thursday that supports Public Administrator Gerard A. Nester's 10-year quest to get his office staff on the city's payroll.

In her audit report released Thursday, Montee and her staff said that state law allows Nester to request that he be put on a city salary, with his employees' pay and benefits also paid by the city. In return, the city would control the office's income and spending.

But City Hall has resisted doing so, although Montee said at a Thursday news conference that there's nothing in the state law that allows the city to refuse Nester's request.

A bit of background:

The St. Louis public administrator is a citywide elective post and one of the city's so-called "county offices." The administrator oversees the assets of city residents who die without a will or known relatives.

The administrator handles any debts owed by the deceased, and directed the money to surviving relatives who are located. After the office's fee is assessed, any remaining money goes to the state of Missouri's Unclaimed Property Section.

The public administrator's office also can be appointed by the Probate Court to act as guardian for any disabled or mentally ill people deemed by the court to be unable to care for themselves. The administrator's office has the power to place such people -- known as "wards" -- in nursing homes, or see that they get the necessary medical or psychiatric care. A fee also can be assessed, if such wards have assets.

As it stands, the only aid Nester gets from city government is free office space.

Nester and his staff currently pay themselves and their benefits (insurance, business expenses) from fees assessed the estates that fall under the office's jurisdiction.

Nester says he wants his office and employees to become part of the city's payroll, in part, because he believes he needs more employees to do the job properly. As it stands, Nester can only employ the number of staff that he can afford to pay for, with the estate fees collected.

Nester has sole control of the office's finances, and runs it like a small quasi-private business, Montee said. But because of that setup, she said her staff auditors had limited access to documents verifying the public administrator office's income and spending. Instead, they had to rely on Nester's estimates.

If the public administrator's office were under the aspices of the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which governs all city income and spending, Montee said she and her staff would have access to records that could document Nester's financial figures. Most of the city's other "county offices" are on the city's payroll.

Montee emphasized that she wasn't challenging Nester's honesty, but she did note that a public administrator in Buchanan County is now in prison after being caught embezzling.

Her point: the public and her office should have more access to Nester's records. But she agrees that can happen only if his office's finances become part of city government.

Mayor Francis Slay was asked about the dispute Thursday, and said he would look into it. However, Slay did express concern that taking over the public administrator's office could cost the city additional money at a time when it already is considering severe budget cuts.

Nester was appointed to the office in 1998, won election in November 2000 and -- in compliance with state law -- sent a letter to the mayor's office in December 2000 asking that he and his staff be put on the city's payroll.

The mayor at the time, Clarence Harmon, replied in a letter sent to Nester in January 2001 that the city felt it would be a violation of state law to place Nester on salary and make his staff part of the city's payroll. Montee said Thursday that her office's legal team disagrees with that assessment.

Nester has made two more such requests -- within a month of his re-election in 2004 and again after winning re-election in 2008. He also has been working with Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, on an ordinance that would allow Nester and his staff to become part of the city payroll.

Montee said she did not believe such an ordinance was needed. But she did advocate that the city counselor's office get involved.

After Thursday's release of her audit's conclusions in favor of Nester, the city's lawyers probably will soon take a look.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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