SPRINGFIELD — For the first time since it was discovered that its former finance officer spent two years embezzling money with an illegally obtained debit card, the city of Springfield balanced its budget in December.
Throughout that same time span, the city has worked to put new safeguards in place and reinforce existing checks and balances to ensure it won't again see what current finance officer Tiffany Balvin told The Daily Republic was the perfect storm of improper documentation and a lax chain of command.
On Tuesday, 36-year-old Ashlea Pruss, who was the city's finance officer until November 2018, was sentenced to 60 days in jail for embezzling more than $38,000 from the city between October 2016 and her resignation, using the money for her personal expenses.
Springfield Mayor Michael Lee told The Daily Republic on Wednesday that no one in the city knew about Pruss' spending until late November of 2018, when a banker called to say that something in the city's ambulance account didn’t look right.
“So I went down to the bank, and they printed out the ambulance account (statement), and I started looking at all the stuff that had been billed," Lee said in a phone conversation. “... We found out about it the day after she resigned.”
Lee said he knew immediately that Pruss was responsible for the unauthorized expenses because she was the only person who would have been able to access the ambulance service's account. Lee reported the issue to the Bon Homme County Sheriff’s Office, which began an investigation into Pruss with assistance from the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.
According to statements made during Pruss' sentencing hearing at the Bon Homme County Courthouse in Tyndall, Pruss used city funds for concert tickets, groceries, clothes, her water bill and more, including payment for a hotel where she stayed while interviewing for another job.
Balvin, who took over as the city's finance officer and ambulance treasurer after Pruss resigned, said Pruss had independently gone to the bank and gotten a debit card that connected to the ambulance account, allowing her to carry the card with her to make unauthorized purchases.
“It’s actually illegal for any municipality to have a debit card," Lee said.
Since Pruss' spending was discovered, Lee and Balvin said, restrictions on city accounts have been adjusted so that the bank would be required to ask permission from the mayor or city council president if anyone else were to attempt to link a debit card to city funds in the future.
Today, the city has one credit card, which is generally only accessed by Balvin and the assistant city finance officer.
Lee said Pruss' theft hasn't forced the city to make any budget cuts, as the only account affected was the ambulance account and Pruss was ordered to pay restitution within one year.
However, Balvin said it took more than a year to get the city's budget balanced because Pruss also hadn't kept proper financial documentation, and bank statements from 2018 were missing from the city's computer system, and she delayed the audit for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which was supposed to be filed in early 2018, so much that it wasn't filed until 2019.
"She did not do her work like it was supposed to be done," Balvin said.
Balvin said she's worked with the South Dakota Municipal League for more than a year to strengthen and restructure the Springfield's checks and balances, including adding policies to the city's employee handbook that outline conflicts of interest and break down who is responsible for each task. Lee said many of those policies were already in place when Pruss was the city finance officer, but they hadn't been implemented.