Ferries ace their audit — for first time in 21 years

OLYMPIA — For 21 straight years, the state auditor has criticized Washington State Ferries officials for not knowing exactly how many tickets are sold and how much money is collected from riders.

That streak is over.

The latest audit issued this month concluded the troubled state agency had “corrected” the problem with its electronic fare system.

“We’re thrilled we got through a fiscal audit without any findings on ticket sales and revenue collections,” said Lloyd Brown, communications director for the state Department of Transportation.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag sounded almost as pleased to not have to scold the agency again.

“I’m thrilled. They’ve been working on this for awhile. I think they are on to something,” he said.

The good news for the ferry system is in the financial audit of the state Department of Transportation from July 1, 2006, through June 30, 2007. In that period, Washington State Ferries, a division of the Transportation Department, reported receipt of $146.8 million in fare revenue.

Since 1986, state audits have found the department ­unable to reconcile with certainty the number of tickets sold and amount of money received.

Last year’s report stated “progress is being made” with installation of the new gear at some of the 14 terminals but the lack of adequate fiscal control had not been eliminated.

“No system is in place to ensure that all sales are recorded,” that audit found. “Neither our office nor the Ferries Division can estimate how much is lost due to unrecorded sales.”

Former Transportation Secretary Doug McDonald predicted then that the streak of critical findings would end as soon as the new fare collection equipment was fully deployed.

He proved to be right.

“The condition reported during our 2006 audit (issued in March 2007) has been corrected,” according to the audit. “The new electronic fare system has been implemented with controls in place to monitor ticket sales and revenue collection.”

McDonald last year chided Sonntag for what he considered an overly harsh report, given the department’s forward progress.

Sonntag said he had no problem moving on.

“For us, it’s always about accountability and the fact that they are able to provide that necessary oversight of these public transactions,” he said. “It’s equally important that we are able to acknowledge the progress.”

Fare revenues were not the only concern raised in last year’s audit.

The auditor issued a finding that the Transportation Department lacked adequate internal controls on use of gasoline credit cards and state-owned vehicles.

According to the earlier audit, credit cards reported missing or stolen from the department were used to buy $9,000 worth of fuel. Incomplete mileage logs for agency vehicles meant employees could have driven them for personal use — something Brown said last year did not occur.

This year’s audit does not repeat that finding. It notes the department “partially corrected” the problem with stricter monitoring of who receives and uses the credit cards and ensuring workers log in all miles traveled in state vehicles.

“We did make changes to improve,” Brown said. “The result is we’ve had a clean audit report for the first time in 21 years.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfieldheraldnet.com.

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