Some contend jurisdiction needs auditor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Harford County is the only executive-led jurisdiction in the metropolitan area without a full-time auditor - a staffing omission that is costing the county independent oversight of the executive branch, say officials from other counties and government watchers.

Auditors say theirs is a key but sometimes little-understood role in local government: The job tends to be described as a bean counter, but it is really more one of a watchdog.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said that for a county, the auditor's office serves a function much like the federal Office of Management and Budget. Without that independent oversight, he said, "it creates the potential for mischief."

Harford has not had an auditor since the mid-1990s. Since then, during the annual budget process, an auditor is hired on a contractual basis.

Without a county auditor, the financial information produced by the executive branch is also what the County Council must use in its deliberations of budgets and legislation - compromising the body's checks-and-balance function.

"You're relying on the facts and figures they're presenting to you, there's no question about that," acknowledged Council President Robert S. Wagner.

But Harford County Executive James M. Harkins said the county's checks-and-balance system is strong, and an internal auditor would amount to "more bureaucracy, more taxpayers' dollars - for what?"

"We have a very, very savvy County Council," Harkins said. "You don't pull anything over on them."

He said every county's system of government is unique, and because other counties have auditors, doesn't mean Harford needs to fall in line. "One of the ways we're unique is not throwing away county taxpayers' dollars," the Republican said.

Teresa Sutherland, Anne Arundel County's auditor, said she and her staff of six auditors are a "watchdog over the executive branch," from analyzing the annual budget to the fiscal impact of proposed legislation.

"I really don't know how we would function objectively without an auditor," said Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat representing Linthicum.

Beidle said she gets help from the auditor's office researching much more than fiscal costs.

"It's not just about numbers," Beidle said. "She [Sutherland] sometimes researches policy."

Beidle said some administration members think Sutherland is too picky. But she's keeping people in line, Beidle said, by checking behind leaders and agencies to be sure the county's fiscal line is followed.

Sutherland discovered, for example, during last year's routine year-end audit, that the county had shortchanged its pension funds of $2.6 million.

In Baltimore County, Auditor Brian Rowe has a staff of 19 and said his office analyzes the county executive's budget, reviews all legislation and audits county agencies.

County auditors in Anne Arundel, Howard and several other counties around the state work in about the same areas, depending on the size of the budget and government, as well as how many people are on the auditor's staff.

Another role of the auditor is as an independent analyst for disputes between government agencies and unions, municipalities or community groups.

In Harford, one example of where an auditor might weigh in would be in providing an independent analysis of water cost projections submitted by the city of Aberdeen as it seeks to draw water from Deer Creek - or hook up to the county's public water.

With the county and city disputing each other's cost-of-service projections, the county auditor could provide a detached analysis. "That would be a perfect example of what we would do," she said.

Harford County Council members have mixed views about the value of a full-time auditor.

Councilwoman Veronica L. "Roni" Chenowith of Fallston dismissed the position as redundant to the council's functions.

"The checks and balances are what the voters send us here to do," said the Republican. "We're the watchdogs." She said auditors "are looking at whole numbers; I'm looking line by line."

Wagner, also a Republican, said that while that having an auditor would give the council "a better set of eyes that we have right now, it's not been that big of an issue."

That could change after a recent board work session, when freshman Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing the Bel Air area, raised the issue of the vacancy.

In spite of the lean budget year, Cassilly said the complexity of issues coming up before the council warrants a look at adding an auditor.

"I'm not a fan of bloated bureaucracies, but sometimes you can be penny-wise and pound-foolish," Cassilly said. "We're asked to make decisions that are well beyond our expertise."

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican from Aberdeen, said having no auditor puts the council at a disadvantage in its dealings with the administration.

"We're taking their word all of the time," he said. "For us to be dependent on information from the executive branch might be overly optimistic."

Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican representing Havre de Grace, Aberdeen Proving Ground, parts of Abingdon, Riverside and Perryman, said: "I think we should look into it now. Everything's changing, the issues are getting more complex. I would never want anyone to say we weren't giving the people the best bang for their buck."

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, who represents Joppa, Magnolia, Edgewood and Joppatowne, said, "We certainly need it, and it's certainly called for." But he added that with this year's budget constraints, he would need more evidence that it's a worthwhile expenditure.

Council Vice President Lance C. Miller, a Republican who represents the county's rural north, said the position has merit but the lean budget year made such an addition unlikely. Wagner agreed, noting that one auditor's position would run at least $130,000 when benefits are included.

"This wouldn't be the year I'd be trying to expand stuff," Wagner said.

Fighting for auditors is often not a popular cause among elected officials, said F. Michael Taylor, city auditor for Stockton, Calif., and president of the National Association of Local Government Auditors.

"It can be politically a very difficult thing to vote to add auditors as opposed to adding firefighters, police officers or health care workers," he said. "Having an audit function in time improves those services."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°