A few years ago we gave a speech to the annual conference of the Association of Local Government Auditors about what keeps auditors awake at night. One reason, often cited: Departmental obstructionism.
We were reminded of this recently when we saw the controversy emerging in Richmond over the city’s unwillingness to cooperate with the auditor’s review of tax collections. At last count, the city was owed about $53 million by taxpayers.
In a nicely reported piece by Ned Oliver at The Richmond Times-Dispatch, interviews with council members showed broad support for the auditor’s examination of tax collections. But Oliver found that state rules laws limit the ability of a local auditor to access tax records unless this is requested by a city’s finance director. The Richmond finance director, and other top city officials have said that they don’t see a need for the audit.
“I was embarrassed to see someone from the administration say they’re not willing to give information to our auditor. Whether it’s state law or not, we all talk about transparency. Transparency can’t be selectively entered into and out of, “ said council member Michael Jones.
We hear about issues like this cropping up all the time. On March 6, the New York Comptroller’s office issued a summary of an audit report for the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. “We were unable to draw conclusions about several of the most important parts of our audit because the Center did not provide us with access to most of the relevant information needed to achieve our audit objective,” the summary said.
As it happens, we were on the phone last week with Drummond Kahn, the director of audit services in Portland Oregon. Do auditors often face departmental roadblocks we asked. “It happens all the time,” he said. Often, a department’s excuse is that it’s just not the right time for an audit. “Either there’s a new manager or the manager is about to leave or it’s budget season or they’re going into budget season or budget season has just finished. Or they’re putting in a new technology system or they need to replace their technology system.”
It’s no wonder auditors lose sleep.