EDITORIAL: County government needs shape shift

PICKY, PICKY, PICKY. You’d think that the Office of the State Comptroller would have better things to do than pore over the books of county government to see how taxpayer funds are spent. Those state accountants are never satisfied. They always find some reason to complain, as if anybody cares.

They were at it again last week, releasing a report that says Columbia County government’s payroll policies were in disarray based on evidence from a handful of county agencies that were audited. Worse, the report found that thousands of dollars were spent on compensation of various kinds–accrued vacation and leave time, paid holidays, etc.–without the proper authorizations or record keeping.

In one case cited by the report the District Attorney’s Office realized that an assistant district attorney who had resigned was about to get overpaid by thousands of dollars. So the DA’s office emailed county payroll officials five days before the payment was scheduled, alerting county officials to the error. But nobody in payroll read the email and the former employee was given an unexpected, and unearned, bonus. It just goes to prove there’s never a CPA around when you need one.

Columbia County has been struggling for several years to bring its payroll system into something like the 21st century. In responding to the state audit report, Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said last month that the county was working on a “corrective action plan” in response to the audit. And in a press release issued this week following a story on the audit on our front page, Mr. Grattan said, “The county will take all reasonable steps moving forward to ensure appropriate records are kept with respect to payroll.”

That’s reassuring until you look at just how much work remains for the county to do. Consider, for instance, Recommendation No. 3 (of eight) in the state comptroller’s report, which reads in part: “The board should require time and attendance records to identify start and end times and the number of daily hours worked to be recorded and certified by all employees.” Now there’s a nifty idea. How come nobody thought of that one before?

“The board” addressed in the audit recommendations is the county Board of Supervisors, and that’s where the source of the problem and its solution lie. The audit did not uncover a smoking gun of corruption. During the 21-month period that was reviewed, the Comptroller’s Office didn’t prove anyone intentionally bilked the county. No criminal or civil charges are suggested. Instead, the audit adds another chapter to the distressingly consistent story of tolerance for outdated, ineffective procedures and uninformed decisions. The inescapable conclusion is that the structure of our county government structure is wired to discourage competence.

The county was nearly out of cash not so many months ago; county officials spent years planning for an expansion of the airport that wasn’t required; we bought an old school we never used and sold at a loss; we’re now seeking bids on a nursing home without having a credible idea what it’s worth; it took a near catastrophic fire to force implementation of a countywide warning system. And yet Columbia County has a dedicated, productive and capable workforce reliably providing essential services that help make this such a great place to live. Something isn’t right.

It requires magical thinking to believe an enterprise as complex and expensive as Columbia County government can be managed without some form of central executive authority. Many of our surrounding counties elect a county executive, though voters here have shown little interest in taking that big a step at this time. It makes more sense that we should have a professional county manager operating with a degree of autonomy but still accountable to the Board of Supervisors.

The manager’s tasks would include identifying the functions of county government that don’t comply with laws and regulations and recommending ways for the board to correct these flaws. A manager could also bring order to the county’s fiscal practices.

Having a county manager won’t end the need for state audits, nor will it solve all our problems. Finding holes in the process is what auditors do. But to reduce the number of unpleasant surprises ahead, the county needs a qualified person to replace the board’s part-time oversight of county government with full-time leadership. Anyone who assumes this approach is too expensive should read the latest audit to see what it’s costing us now to ignore the need for change.

Comments are closed.