Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Letter to Judge Woodson

February 15th 2014

Honorable Danny Woodson
76th Judicial District Judge
P.O. BOX 1306
Mount Pleasant TX 75456-1306

Honorable Robert Ralston
276th Judicial District Judge
P.O. BOX 2224
Mount Pleasant TX 75456-2224

Subject: Open Letter re Titus County Auditor, Expiring Term of Office

Your Honors,

This letter is following up on our correspondence from 2013 concerning the Titus County Auditor.

The position of County Auditor is required in all counties with population over 10,200 and is appointed by the District Judges with jurisdiction in the county (Texas Local Government Code Sec 84.002). The term of office of a county auditor is two years (sec. 84.004).

The key responsibilities of a county auditor are establishing and maintaining the accounting system and auditing all aspects of the county finances and as stated in the following sections of the Local Government Code:

Sec. 112.001.  ACCOUNTING SYSTEM IN COUNTY WITH COUNTY AUDITOR AND POPULATION OF LESS THAN 190,000.  In a county with a population of less than 190,000, the county auditor may adopt and enforce regulations, not inconsistent with law or with a rule adopted under Section 112.003, that the auditor considers necessary for the speedy and proper collecting, checking, and accounting of the revenues and other funds and fees that belong to the county.

Sec. 115.001.  EXAMINATION OF RECORDS.  The county auditor shall have continual access to and shall examine and investigate the correctness of:  (1)  the books, accounts, reports, vouchers, and other records of any officer;  (2)  the orders of the commissioners court relating to county finances;  and  (3)  the vouchers given by the trustees of all common school districts of the county.
In effect the County Auditor is an independent, judicially appointed, check and balance on all the elected County officials. Such checks and balances are one of the strongest elements of the US form of government, but they have to be properly implemented to achieve their intended effect. With an effective county auditor the taxpayers money is spent wisely, with an ineffective auditor it gets wasted or worse.

It does not matter if a citizen of Titus County considers themselves a Republican, Democrat or independent, most of us just want the County government to provide the necessary infrastructure and services that it is responsible for, efficiently and cost effectively. A good County Auditor is a key to this happening.

In our earlier correspondence you became fully aware of your legal responsibilities to appoint and monitor the performance of the Titus County Auditor. You also established that the current County Auditor, Carl Johnson was first appointed March 1st 1992 and has served continuously ever since, i.e. for 22 years.

I am of the opinion that we need to appoint a different auditor upon the expiration of Mr. Johnson's current term, for a number of reasons.

Firstly in recent years it has become widely accepted, by business and government, that it is good policy to change auditors on a regular basis, so that they retain their independence. Changing auditors every ten years is often cited as good policy. Mr Johnson has been in this position for twenty two years and in my opinion has lost much of his independence from the Commissioners Court. He did by all accounts do some good earlier, such as implementing the change of the county accounting to a computerized system but that was 20 years ago. Titus County is long overdue from having a new set of eyes looking at the books and safeguarding the taxpayers money.

Here are some more specific concerns:

County Budget & Amendments
In the Texas Local Government Code it is made clear that County funds should only be raised and spent on budgeted items except in an emergency.

Sec. 111.010.  LEVY OF TAXES AND EXPENDITURE OF FUNDS UNDER BUDGET;  EMERGENCY EXPENDITURE;  BUDGET TRANSFER.  (a)  The commissioners court may levy taxes only in accordance with the budget.  (b)  After final approval of the budget, the commissioners court may spend county funds only in strict compliance with the budget, except in an emergency.
Far too often in Commissioners Court meetings Carl just goes along with what the Judge or Commissioners want to do. A County Auditor should not be using phrases like 'what ever you guys want'. Spending $150,000 buying a building, that they subsequently decide is not needed, hardly constitutes as an emergency and was certainly never budgeted.

Mr. Johnson goes along far too often and issues budget amendments after the fact. The number of budget amendments each year is ridiculous and indicates that the county budget is just seen as a guideline that can be changed whenever they want, and not as a serious document committing our elected officials to spending money as intended.

The entire budget process is weak and confusing. Mr. Johnson has been very reluctant to make the budgets readily accessible or understandable. He appears to be loathed to show the balances of the various funds, even though state law requires it. Currently only the 2010, 2013 and 2014 budgets are available through the Titus County website. He expected people to try and wade through 150 plus page printouts rather than provide concise easy to understand summaries. The summary he provided for 2014 was the first ever and still leaves a lot to be desired. For contrast if you want to see how an open and effective local government budget can be presented, have a look at the City of Mount Pleasant website. They explain the purpose of every budget category and the reasons for increases or decreases.

Most of the commissioners think that any money left in their road fund is theirs to spend, even if it is not budgeted. An effective auditor would not allow this to happen.

Over the past 18 months is has come to light, due to the diligent efforts of concerned citizens (my self included) that something is seriously wrong with the control and accounting for the use of county paid gasoline in two of the four commissioners precincts. It appears that non-county vehicles have been using county gasoline for many years. There could be up to $150,000 of gasoline that has been misappropriated over that last 10 plus years. There was no sign that Mr. Johnson had ever audited the gasoline records kept by the Commissioners and in fact there was not ever a standardized way of keeping the records. Such omissions by the auditor are totally unacceptable.

Capital Equipment
The County Auditor has a responsibility to ensure that county capital equipment such as trucks and road building equipment is accounted for and used efficiently. If we had a properly appointed County Purchasing Agent (Sec. 262.011) then that person would be required to do an annual inventory of county property and propose the transfer of underused equipment to avoid unnecessary purchases. In the absence of a Purchasing Agent (we only have a 'Business Manager' which avoids judicial oversight) this responsibility falls to the County Auditor. There is little indication that such transfers ever happen. Every county precinct barn has all kinds of underutilized dump trucks that are driven a few hundred miles a year and and road graders that are used for less than 200 hours a year. An effective auditor would find ways to get the Commissioners to work together, plan their road construction better and reduce the number of expensive pieces of equipment that the county purchases and maintains.

Information Technology
As mentioned earlier Mr. Johnson was instrumental in computerizing the county accounts back in the early 1990's. The IBM 'AS-400' type mini-computer system installed back then was a reasonable way of handling the county accounting needs at the time. That system with some upgrades is still in use and is an expensive dinosaur. Such systems are now outdated, long eclipsed by PC server based systems which are much easier to use (especially to generate reports and share information), use inexpensive off the shelf hardware and have a wide range of software available for them. There are accounting software packages available for local government and other non-profit organizations that have an installed base of over 30,000 organizations using them. Titus County is spending a ridiculous amount of money (well over $200,000 annually) to maintain semi proprietary system that could be replaced by one that costs less than $25,000 in annual support costs. My efforts through Judge Lee to get Mr Johnson interested in making this change and saving the county a lot of money, have not gone anywhere. I made a similar change to the computer systems at a business here in Mount Pleasant, that I was hired to turn around ,and the new system repaid itself in six months of hard cash saving on maintenance contracts alone.
In my view Mr. Johnson has clearly been remiss in not keeping the County accounting system up to date and taking advantage of the much cheaper and easier to use systems that are now commonplace.

In summary as much good as Mr. Johnson might of done earlier in his role as County Auditor, he has been there far too long and has lost his independence and objectivity. A new auditor is needed who will put much needed focus on actually auditing all accounts on a regular basis, making the budgeting process more stringent, only allow properly budgeted expenditures, bring some much needed commonsense to capital expenditures and update the computer system to produce some real savings. I ask that you consider this request seriously and do not reappoint Mr. Johnson next month without looking at the alternatives.

Thank you for your consideration.

Nigel Christopher

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