Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

County to consider instigating own audits

October 4, 2004


Some of the most basic services in Douglas County government soon could face the scrutiny of self-imposed audits.

Douglas County commissioners are investigating the prospects for ordering a run of "performance" audits on assorted county operations -- at the county jail, on rural roads or inside the land-use regulations that shape the way the community develops.

The goal: Seeking information that could help deliver the most effective and efficient services possible.

"Periodically, we've run into questions where we've had a tough time finding answers," said Charles Jones, commission chairman. "We ought to be able to take them on -- and take them on seriously -- and find some common ground and resolution."

Commissioners are gathering information about such audits before deciding whether to proceed. They expect to make a decision in the coming months.

Mark Funkhouser, city auditor for Kansas City, Mo., said the county could expect to create its own independent auditing operation for anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 a year.

Funkhouser's own organization runs on a $1.2 million budget, monitoring a city government with 7,500 employees and a $1 billion budget. The audits completed during the past 16 years have yielded $3.10 in savings for every $1 spent.

There's no reason to expect Douglas County's results to be any different.

"I start from the premise that all human beings are flawed," Funkhouser said. "I'm flawed, and every human being is flawed. And human organizations, therefore, are flawed -- so there are problems, and there are opportunities to do better. I call those lurking demons and hidden rabbits.

"Those you don't know about, you want to find out about before they bite you. If there's money you could be using, you want that money. If there are programs that could be fixed, you want to fix them."

Audits ahead?

Jones already has several potential demons and rabbits in his sights:

l Rural roads. Roads outside Lawrence, Eudora, Baldwin and Lecompton are owned by the county, and maintained by either the county or nine townships. Jones wonders whether consolidating maintenance through a so-called "unit road system" might make sense.

l Planning. Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioners typically review land-use issues during monthly meetings that extend past midnight, a workload that "paralyzes" the process. Jones wonders whether new procedures could be found to ease pressures on planning commissioners, professional staffers and the public.

l County jail. Jones wants to know whether the county could save money and retain effective service by separating the jail from the Douglas County Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff Rick Trapp welcomes the possibility of a performance audit. He's already squeezed savings out of the jail's food program, and contracted for mental health services in a move lauded by commissioners.

But the complexities of running a direct-supervision jail carry their own financial burdens, Trapp said, and he doubts that an audit would be able to unlock any new secrets -- especially as sentencing guidelines, state budget cuts and crime trends continue to force more people into county lockup.

"It's a nationwide problem that's not of our own making," Trapp said, of rising costs to operate the jail. "If there's a better way we can do it, we want to do it."

Trapp's willingness to embrace talk of an audit is a testament to the commitment of county leaders, said Craig Weinaug, county administrator.

"We have to go into it with the attitude that if we come up with some ideas to change some things, it's good for everybody," Weinaug said. "I think we're already there."

While support for the idea is building, the actual decision about whether to hire an auditor -- either someone working on the county's payroll or on a contract basis -- is far from imminent.

Considering complications

Commissioner Jere McElhaney, for one, remains skeptical of spending money to search for savings. That's because the county essentially audits itself, he said, through the personal contacts and relationships that commissioners and department leaders already have.

"We're a small enough government, and we have a good enough staff, where we can kind of take care of a lot of these complications ourselves," McElhaney said.

But Funkhouser cautions that such relationships can thwart well-meaning officials from making positive changes. He recalls conversations with dozens of officials who had good ideas, only to see them blocked by the barriers of bureaucracy.

As an independent auditor, Funkhouser reports only to the Kansas City City Council -- a standing that can help him cut through clutter, locate experts, compile ideas and assess the big picture before making recommendations for change.

"Audit is not a management tool," Funkhouser said. "We're not here because managers aren't bright and we're not here to solve management problems. Audit is a governance tool. Audit helps the whole organization develop better policies and develop better practices and allocate resources more wisely."

Commissioner Bob Johnson supports the concept of performance audits, as long as they take a positive approach. He doesn't advocate starting with a mindset that something's wrong; he prefers to think that there are ways to do things better, a goal all public officials should share.

"When you hear, 'Let's do an audit,' it's an immediate Gestapo factor," Johnson said. "We have to remember that it's a governance tool, not a management tool. If we approach it that way, we'll be much more likely to be successful."

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