Weighing the cost of adding county auditors
1:00 pm
Thu August 20, 2009

Weighing the cost of adding county auditors

Mecklenburg County is considering hiring three more auditors after an investigation uncovered mismanagement of money in the Department of Social Services. The department hasn't been able to account for $162,000 in donations given to provide holiday gifts to poor children.

County officials say more frequent audits may have caught the department's problems earlier. However, calling in more auditors would cost the county more than the possible misspending that triggered the initial investigation

WFAE's Lisa Miller has more:

County commissioner Dan Murrey chairs the Audit Review Committee. He says adding three new auditors wouldn't be a case of a solution costing more than the actual problem. Rather, he says problems at DSS that resulted from sloppiness at best and criminal behavior at worst highlighted the county's need for more frequent audits.

"I really don't have any reason to believe that there is a problem in other areas and we haven't seen any evidence of that or heard any evidence of that," says Murrey. "But I recognize it's a large organization and if you don't look for it, you don't find it."

In March, DSS Director Mary Wilson called for audits of the department after two employees were accused of taking $110,000 from a charity the department sponsored. Auditors are also trying to figure out what happened to an additional $52,000. The county's audit concluded there were too many missing receipts and not enough records to tell whether most of that money was actually spent on gifts to needy children. The county called in the police department to conduct a criminal investigation.

County Finance Director Dena Diorio says a core audit would have caught those problems. Two years ago, the county commission decided to audit entire departments at least once every three years. But budget cuts eliminated positions and the county fell behind schedule. County officials say three new auditors would bring them back up to speed.

The county's human resources director says the going rate for an auditor is $51,000. That does not include thousands in benefits and recruitment costs. Commissioner Murrey says it's hard to quantify the financial return on that investment.

"Sometimes they're able to find money that was either misappropriated or was overpaid to vendors or overpaid a contract," says Murrey. "Sometimes they're able to avoid costs and those are harder to quanitify. But clearly, if the auditors are able to find processes that increase the risk of fraud, or increase the risk of misappropriation, then we can avoid costs for the county."

Murrey says increasing the frequency of audits could also make the public more confident that taxpayer money is being well spent.

County commissioners won't make a decision before the fall whether to go ahead and hire three more auditors.

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