Don't fault computer for $11 million gap

Comment

Let's hope that this is only a computer problem or a staffing shortage, as suggested in the audit.

March 19, 2000|By Norris P. West

IN The Sun's newsroom, it's not unusual to hear writers or editors groan while sitting in front of their computers and then bow their heads in their hands.

You know what just happened: The computer ate the story.

You see, The Sun is switching from its SII computer system to a new Harris setup. The old system went on line in the mid-1980s, when going on line was hardly like going on line now. The replacement was sorely needed to get instant information to reporters, editors and researchers who were limited by SII's primarily word-processing function.

But getting files from the old system to the new one is not always a smooth process. Sometimes, a story doesn't make it from Harris to SII or vice-versa.

Fortunately, lost stories can almost always be saved. The newspaper's information technology gurus are using the standard procedure of running parallel systems. SII and Harris coexist for now. They've got each other's back.

Except for the nagging frustrations, the dual systems have worked well so far. The paper hasn't missed a day.

What The Sun's tech people have done is not remarkable. Running parallel systems is standard for companies, governments and other organizations that transition from one computer system to another. And anyone whose PC hard drive has burned knows the importance of backing up files.

Which makes it puzzling that the Anne Arundel County Office of Budget and Finance decided on May 1, 1999 to permanently shut down its old FAMIS system and start its One World system.

No parallel systems. No backup. No way for Anne Arundel financial officer John Hammond to run this important government department that is supposed to keep county records straight.

Ten months later, the problems have emerged in an audit that shows an $11 million discrepancy in county records.

Mr. Hammond said Friday that he has accounted for $10.5 million and is confident that he will soon reconcile the other $500,000.

Let's hope so. And let's hope that this is only a computer problem or a staffing shortage, as suggested in the audit and by Mr. Hammond, who says he has been short by two accountants .

No crime is alleged, but the mismatched records and lousy tracking have made the budget system a pilferer's paradise.

It took a thorough review by County Auditor Teresa Sutherland and the firm Arthur Anderson LLP to determine that the county didn't balance its checkbook or implement reasonable checks and balances.

The audit found:

Significant amounts of cash receipts were recorded by the banks but not posted to the general ledger that keeps track of total spending.

Cash receipts from July 1999 were strangely posted to the general ledger a month earlier.

Some entries were recorded twice.

Banks were not notified of voided checks in a timely manner.

Voided checks were recorded against the general ledger.

The payroll account has checks outstanding for two full years and the Support and Probation account has checks outstanding since February 1994.

Things just haven't added up. If all these changes can be blamed on a computer transition and soon will be reconciled, that will be a relief. County residents can't feel secure about an $11 million gap until all the parts equal the sum.

The county doesn't know if its budget surplus is $29 or several million dollars less because finance officials don't know whether the general ledger or accounts payable ledgers are accurate.

But even if computers -- or the humans who program them -- are the culprit, other controls should have ensured that records were accurate and well-protected from internal theft.

Ms. Sutherland said that as of January, the budget office had not reconciled its records since August. She said the office should balance its books monthly.

"They knew they had problems with the One World computer system and with their staffing," the auditor said. "Those two scenarios created errors. Management did not do a thorough review to catch them."

The auditors were also disturbed that some employees have the authority to stamp checks and to sign for them. This is one example that the office lacks standard checks and balances. While the county certainly seeks virtuous employees when filling budget office jobs, it should trust, but always verify. A dishonest employee could have a field day writing checks to friends, family and creditors.

Ultimately, County Executive Janet S. Owens must bear some responsibility. She has to assure taxpayers that every dime of their hard-earned money will be accounted for. But Ms. Owens can't make the two computer systems the patsy in this embarrassing mess that has left the county vulnerable to embezzlement. That would be unfair to computers.

Mr. Hammond should have kept the old system running full speed until One World's records were complete and Book A matched Book B.

Let's call this a human glitch.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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