Our Voice: TRAC audit points to need for improved oversight

March 24, 2014 

We thought Franklin County had learned its lesson.

After it was discovered an employee had embezzled almost $3 million, officials assured and reassured the public that measures were being taken to tighten cash handling procedures countywide.

That does not appear to be the case in light of the Washington State Auditor's recent assessment.

While there are no accusations that money has been stolen or is missing, the audit raised serious concerns about the money handling procedures with ATMs and petty cash accounts at the TRAC facility.

The same employee requests and receives cash to stock the ATMs, then loads the money and reconciles the cash to bank statements.

And TRAC is not the only department where concerns were found. Management letters also were issued to the Franklin County Sheriff's Office and the Benton Franklin Juvenile Court. Auditors use management letters to call attention to concerns that aren't required to be disclosed as part of the official audit.

"The county's lack of policies, internal controls and documentation retention creates a potential for county resources to be misappropriated without being detected," the audit stated.

That's exactly how Dennis Huston, the former accountant in the county's public works department, was able to steal millions from the county over two decades.

No one is accusing anyone at TRAC of misappropriating money, but the system is ripe for abuse.

TRAC management apparently raised some red flags to county officials about its cash-handling procedures in the wake of the Huston scandal two years ago, specifically citing the ATMs and petty cash as areas of concern. The auditor's office agreed and forwarded those concerns to the county commissioners.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said he had reason to believe the situation had been remedied but state auditors obviously don't agree.

Peck said resources, time and advice have been given to the staff to fix the issues, and since that hasn't happened, he thinks it may be time for commissioners to get more involved in the management of TRAC.

Peck is in favor of a management contract for TRAC with a private firm, hoping to reduce the annual loss of up to $400,000 for operating the facility. That would transfer liability issues to a contractor managing the facility and off of the county.

It's a good idea for commissioners to become more involved in the management of TRAC, but it's difficult to see how that would be accomplished through a management contract.

TRAC has made some changes, including looking for a firm to operate the ATMs. It also has put a policy in place to separate cash-handling duties. Separating duties also will require more staff time, and TRAC has suggested moving a part-time box office employee to full-time status.

But it appears there is some friction between the county auditor's office and TRAC management on the proposed changes. TRAC wants commissioner approval for proposed procedures, but the auditor's office says the changes don't go far enough.

It looks as though the county commissioners are going to have to sort this out, something they should have done two years ago. This long doesn't show the kind of commitment we expected in light of the massive embezzlement case the county faced. Commissioners owe the public a new and documented look at all departments financial dealings to show that proper procedures are finally in place.

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