Imagine you're creating your household budget for a new year.
But there's a problem.
You don't really know how much money you'll bring in. You don't have a handle on how much you owe.
And for some crazy reason, you don't even know how much money you have in the bank.
If you were a city, your name would be Maricopa.
No one in this west Kern County city -- not the mayor, not the acting city administrator, not the city council -- knows the answer to the most basic financial question: How much money does Maricopa have?
That city finances are in the red -- perhaps deeply so -- is practically a forgone conclusion.
But how deep is the debt? And why doesn't it show up on the books?
KEEPING THE BOOKS
A two-month Californian investigation, launched after a critical grand jury report, found a degree of disarray in Maricopa's city finances that was startling for any public agency. The books are a mess and a succession of people has been brought in to help fix the problem over the years. They have had difficulty doing so.
The city's preliminary budget for the current fiscal year, which started on July 1, is missing critical information.
The final five months of revenue and expenditure information from the past fiscal year hasn't been included in the document and acting city administrator Lauri Robison said the 2010-2011 budget hasn't yet been wrapped up and the books closed.
So, two months into the 2011-2012 fiscal year, there is no way to know how much money the city does or does not have to spend over the next 10 months.
Both Robison and Eric Ziegler, a retired city manager with decades of experience running Barstow, Taft and Glendora, say that an out-of-town financial consultant comes into Maricopa once or twice a year to balance the books.
Ziegler, who has signed on at near-pro bono wages to help right Maricopa's financial ship, said there is no way to start repairing the damage until that person -- who doesn't drive -- can be transported to the small west Kern city to clear up the mystery that is the municipal budget.
"We've got to find out where the bottom of the hole is and then we can figure out how to build a scaffolding to get us out of the hole," Ziegler said.
The city of Maricopa, a onetime oil-boom town of just more than 1,000 residents south of Taft, celebrated its 100th birthday this year under a storm of controversy.
In June the Kern County grand jury issued a scathing critique of the city's police department, its aggressive traffic enforcement policies and cozy relationship with a towing and impound company.
Jurors followed up by blasting the operations of the city itself and recommending the city, in debt and underfunded, disband itself and submit to administration by the county of Kern.
The Maricopa City Council has since rejected that idea. But its business remains under a microscope, with news media from around the county and Southern California reporting on its troubles.
Members of the council acknowledge that there is dispute about just what the city's financial situation is.
"As a council we agreed to let Eric handle these questions," Councilman John Crump said when asked about financial matters. "That way it's not a hundred different stories. There are people with different understandings" of city finances.
Councilman Virgil Bell said the city is definitely struggling, adding "I don't know if we can afford the police department."
But Zeigler has been able to make the city's monthly business agendas clear to the city council and he has hope that the financial picture will improve.
"He's trying to get us turned around and get us on the right path," Bell said.
Former Maricopa city administrator Bob Wilburn, who led the city from early 2006 to mid-2010, said Maricopa has been financially troubled for years.
When he got to Maricopa, Wilburn said, "they were struggling, just as they are now. They were struggling to make payroll. I was told there were times in the past where they said, "'We can't pay you until next month.'"
And, he said, the city's financial house was in disarray.
"They had not had an audit for 12 years," Wilburn said.
Wilburn said he implemented audits, balanced the budget and brought in a new computer accounting program to track how money moved around within the various spending priorities.
The first audits, he said, showed that the city had not been balancing its checkbook on a monthly basis.
Wilburn said he asked Robison to start balancing the books regularly.
But copies of audits of the city's books done in June of 2008, 2009 and 2010 show that those regular reconciliations were never done.
"As a result of the lack of regular and timely reconciliations, the city is unable to ascertain its financial positions during the year," auditors wrote in 2008.
Nothing changed in reports from the following two years.
"I was not aware that we were not doing that every month," Wilburn said. "When I found out the first time that it wasn't happening, I brought in some special help."
That help was Patricia Barboza, the director of administrative services and recreation for the city of Parlier, a small municipality southeast of Fresno.
Barboza said she helped Maricopa work on its finances through the end of the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
Back then, she wrote in a recent email to The Californian, "there was nothing wrong. Just simply the city doesn't have sufficient revenues to do what they want to do. With the economic climate lately, Maricopa is no exception. Almost every city is hurting right now."
Looking at the Maricopa finances now, Barboza wrote, it doesn't seem that the books on the 2009-2010 fiscal year were ever closed. Neither, Robison said, were the books from the 2010-2011 year that ended in June.
Robison noted that she was hired as an administrative assistant, not an accountant, and she was not familiar with the accounting software Wilburn bought for her to use.
Right now, Barboza wrote, she is trying to work her way through the unfinished reconciliation of Maricopa's books so the city has some idea of where it stands.
The most recent city administrator, Dan Ayala, left earlier this year, before the grand jury released its reports. He did not reply to an email requesting comment.
Wilburn defended his own record.
"I feel I served that council well," Wilburn said. "There was zero debt in that city when I left."
But Wilburn did acknowledge what audits of the city's finances show -- that the city's expenditures overtopped its revenues during his tenure.
He blamed one year's problems on a loan the city council gave to the police officers association against his recommendation to hold a fireworks show, a loan that was later forgiven by the council.
"I think the existing council at Maricopa needs to understand that staff tried to operate given the direction of the council that was in place at the time," Wilburn said.
Maricopa City Council member Cynthia Tonkin has been out in front for months expressing concerns about the Maricopa Police Department and the city's faltering finances.
And she's taken plenty of flak for it from some residents, especially avid supporters of the police chief.
"We have police huggers and police haters," she said ruefully. "This is democracy."
But at 76, Tonkin says it's becoming more difficult to be a crusader for accountability in Maricopa's small-town environment. And keeping up with the complexities and deficiencies of the city's finances is like walking through a maze.
"There are so many things happening," she said. "I'm an old lady. I can't keep up with everything going on in this city."
But tired or not, Tonkin is the one member at city council meetings most likely to ask questions about apparent inconsistencies in reports and budgets.
And she was not happy after discovering that the city once borrowed $8,000 from Randy's Towing just to make payroll.
"Last year's 2010-2011 budget wasn't finalized until February 2011," she said, seemingly embarrassed by the city's disfunction. "Oh my goodness, that is so late."
Born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, Tonkin came to Maricopa from the Glendale area in the mid-1970s.
"When my husband brought me here, I literally cried," she recalled.
But she got involved in PTA, became a trustee for the mosquito abatement district and eventually was elected to the city council. She's even served as a grand juror.
Now Maricopa is her town and she wants the best for it.
"I enjoy this life," she said. "It was never a bed of roses, but now I'm worried."