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Why bother doing any auditing? [Editorial]

If the Harford County Council had shown anything resembling fiscal vigilance or restraint in the past four years, it would be easy to argue in favor of adding a third budget auditor to the council's staff.

There are possibly some savings to be had in a general operating budget of around $600 million a year – give or take a few million – and it may well take three full-time finance people to find hidden bits of largesse. Were three auditors working together to find savings of $1 million in a given year – a figure that amounts to around two tenths of a percent of the total — they would more than cover their combined annual salaries.

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As a practical matter, however, the legislative function of acting as a check on the county executive's spending plans each year leaves a lot to be desired. Each April, the County Council dutifully presides over a succession of department heads and other agency leaders as part of the annual budget-making process. Occasionally, some tough questions are asked, and from time to time there are heated exchanges. Rarely, however, are cuts to the county executive's proposed spending plan made that are substantial enough to make so much as a penny difference in the real estate tax rate, or a fraction on the local income tax multiplier on the state income tax form.

Then there's the matter of the County Council's budget, which isn't subject to review by anyone other than the council itself and, at least in theory, the voters. Strictly speaking, the County Council's budget is hardly massive, relative to the county's overall annual spending. In the year beginning July 1, the County Council is planning to spend a bit more than $2.8 million, a tiny fraction of the general operations budget of about $627 million for the county.

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Still, even as the county's spending from year to year has been, from a percentage standpoint, flat, the council's spending has increased by about 26 percent in the past four years. The spending increase was the result of a few factors. The council members were each given – by themselves — authority to hire a personal assistant or aide, to be assigned as each council member sees fit.

Around the same time, the council reconfigured its staff, a reorganization that resulted in the addition of full-time auditor positions to existing authority to hire outside auditors. In addition, the council purged some staff members and in the replacement frenzy ended up paying one of its new staff members a good deal more than the predecessor had been making. When it was brought to the council's attention, the staff member's salary was scaled back and the council claimed it had approved the level of pay without knowing what it was voting on.

It really doesn't matter whether the council knew or didn't know when it approved the salary. If it was known beforehand, shame on the council for approving largesse; if they honestly didn't know, then they weren't doing their jobs when it comes to fiscal restraint.

Which brings us back to the hiring of a third auditor, adding more to the council's budget.

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The County Council has neither shown the intestinal fortitude required to demand actual nips and tucks to the county's general fund budget, nor has it engaged in anything resembling financial responsibility in managing what a legislative budget that started out at $2 million a year four years ago but has since grown to nearly $3 million.

Given that reality, it doesn't matter how many auditors the County Council hires or how much questionable spending those auditors happen to root out. The County Council as constituted for the past few election cycles seems to lack both the ability and the willingness to serve as a fiscal check on anyone's spending, especially its own.

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