Even in a strong economy, state residents require assurance that government at all levels — from local dike districts on up to the governor’s office — are responsive to constituents and show care with the funds provided by taxpayers and other sources.
More so during the economic downturn that has followed the corornavirus pandemic, the state and its residents are especially in need of the watchful eye on government finances, practices and performance that the state Auditor’s Office provides.
The Auditor’s Office is responsible for financial audits of hundreds of city, county and other local governments, reporting directly on their stewardship of public funds. It also conducts performance audits, a provision of Initiative 900, which go further to evaluate the work of state and local agencies. The office also conducts special investigations into reports of fraud and whistle-blower complaints.
Current Auditor Patrice “Pat” McCarthy, a Democrat, is running for her second term, after winning election in 2016.
She is challenged by Chris Leyba, a Pierce County resident who has worked for 11 years as a police officer and detective for the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office, including three years as a detective of audits and inspections, reviewing the Seattle department’s compliance with its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Leyba has national certification as a law enforcement auditor. He currently serves as a felony crimes detective with the sheriff’s office. Leyba is running as a Republican.
Leyba had agreed to a recent joint interview with the editorial board but did not participate in the scheduled teleconference.
McCarthy, a Democrat, won election to the office following the tumultuous tenure of Troy Kelley, who at the time was facing charges of possession of stolen property, false declarations under oath and tax fraud. His conviction on those charges recently was upheld by a federal appeals court.
McCarthy — whose resume includes two terms as Pierce County executive and service as Pierce County auditor and a Tacoma School Board member — quickly righted the office of some 400 auditors and other employees and restored morale.
The work of the office and its auditors can seem picayune to some, uncovering inattention and minor slip-ups by local governments regarding accounting and other standards meant to safeguard public finances. But those reviews sometimes turn up major problems.
Just this week, a state audit of a cleanup project at an historic gold mining operation at Monte Cristo in Snohomish County found the Department of Ecology was missing quarterly reports regarding the spending of $300,000 for cleanup work of arsenic and other heavy metals performed by the U.S. Forest Service, The Herald’s Julia-Grace Sanders reported Thursday.
Another routine audit last year discovered $6.9 million missing at the Pierce County Housing Agency, between 2016 and 2019. The former housing agency official, Cova Campell, was charged this spring with four counts of wire fraud.
Along with its routine work, however, McCarthy also has overseen the increased visibility and accessibility of the office’s work through the auditor’s website, adding new tools, including one called Tracker that allows the public to easily find audits and reports of government responses to those audits in a searchable database.
Likewise, the website allows public review of the performance audits the office undertakes. Among recent performance audits are a review of the Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Child Support and more than $2 billion in past-due child support. The audit considers whether requiring insurance companies to report eligible insurance claims could direct their use to fulfill unpaid claims to custodial parents. Another review recommends steps for Sound Transit to reduce costs in project planning and design.
The performance reviews are not always financial in scope. Another recent review faulted school districts that on average allowed elementary school children only 13 minutes for lunch. The review, requested by state Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, recommended changes to lunch and recess schedules, which Reykdal is pursuing as policy with school districts.
Further information on governments and agencies is available through the office’s Financial Intelligence Tool, with general reports about specific local governments’ financial stability. Along with tutorials, the searchable database provides a basic snapshot of a local government’s general financial outlook and links to detailed data on revenue, expenses and past audits.
McCarthy said the pandemic, as it has for many, has forced changes for her office; some work, such as completion of some performance audits, has been pushed out to later dates, for example.
While some staff are reporting to agency offices at a reduced capacity, she said, most are completing audits and other work online with good cooperation from those governments being audited. Ever with an eye on efficiency, McCarthy said her employees’ adoption of remote work now raises the opportunity for her office — and possibly others — to consider a review of how much office space the state needs to lease.
With the state and local governments confronting ever-tightening budgets because of the pandemic, the public needs a close eye kept on spending and financial regulations and easy access to the findings of the Auditor’s Office.
McCarthy has shown able stewardship of her office, which in return has helped assure good stewardship of public finances. Voters should return McCarthy to her office for another four years.