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Now that an auditor is running the Salt Lake County auditor's office again, there's a move afoot to do more performance audits to ensure the efficiency of county programs and departments.
"It's high time we do some [audits] to determine if taxpayers are getting their money's worth," Republican County Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove said last week, noting that he had brought up the idea with first-term Auditor Scott Tingley shortly after the latter's election in November.
Tingley replaced fellow Republican Greg Hawkins, an attorney by training, whose four years in office were marked by conflict with the council.
Last week, Tingley said his auditing staff is up to the task. The office's audit unit has been divided into high-performance teams, he added, groups equipped to provide "an objective analysis to improve program performance and operations, reduce costs and initiate corrective action. … It is needed and long overdue."
While the GOP-led council and Democratic Mayor Ben McAdams' administration generally support the notion of more audits, several council members expressed concern about their ability to maintain control of the reviews as a separation-of-powers issue.
As the county's legislative body, the council believes it has the authority to audit the way the executive branch which would include independently elected officials such as the clerk, assessor, even the auditor himself uses council-approved funding. It has budgeted money for an auditor of its own to fulfill this function, but has not yet filled the post.
Since there are still plans to do that, Republican Councilman Michael Jensen suggested the council strike a short-term deal to have the elected auditor perform the reviews on a case-by-case basis. This could be done, he and Tingley agreed, through a memorandum of understanding or a charter that lays out the purpose, authority and responsibility of all involved.
"I would want it to be a year-to-year charter," Jensen said, "and if we do not affirmatively extend the charter, it would end. I don't want it to go on and on as an automatic part of government."
Councilman Jim Bradley, a Democrat, agreed that audits should be under the council's control. Instead of developing a yearlong list of subjects in need of an audit, he suggested the council pick one topic, have Tingley look into it and see how the process works. If it works well, then the council could instruct the elected auditor to do another study.
"I want to gently get confidence in the project," Bradley said, "before we jump in."
One procedural point the council has to figure out is who suggests what subjects undergo study? Is it the whole council? Is it a legislative audit committee that has been dormant for some time? Or is it some newly formed subcommittee?
The legislative audit committee would seem to be the choice, since it will meet at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday before the council's regular weekly work session.
Tingley said his approach to an audit essentially would line up with a recommendation of the council's top staff analyst, Dave Delquadro, who said "tone is an important part of it."
"An audit often leads to a 'gotcha' type of fear. That's not what we want," Delquadro added. "We want a situation where an agency has the opportunity, in a collaborative way, to identify problem areas, the impediments to solving those problems and potential solutions."
Responded Tingley: "Audits have been seen as a policy-type function where we're out kicking down doors and making sure county agencies are complying with countywide policy. That's not my approach."
Where would audits begin?
The issue raised most often by council members involved the cost of transporting jail inmates to hospitals for medical treatment. Another possibility is the performance of the Discovery Gateway children's museum, although that is more complicated because a private nonprofit organization runs the attraction.
Tuesday's legislative audit committee is expected to resolve that matter, with Republican Councilman Max Burdick observing "this is another tool for us to move forward and to test it out for a year."
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