New audit reveals little oversight of Arundel's government computers

Whereabouts of many unknown, report shows

October 29, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County's auditor suspected that the county government wasn't keeping close tabs on its thousands of computers, so she set out to find a sample of 30.

Twenty-four, valued at $31,700, were missing.

That's 80 percent of the sample, and that was only the beginning of the problems detailed in a report that Auditor Teresa Sutherland issued Friday.

Were the missing computers stolen? Lost? Disposed of? It's not clear, according to the audit, though at least two were stolen and the thefts were never reported.

Several officials said the report shows that there is little oversight of the county's 3,000 computers, which are worth several million dollars. There is no way, they said, to determine how many might be missing.

"We're talking millions of dollars for which there are no records - no records which are meaningful," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat. "The problem is, we're talking about taxpayers' money."

The disclosure of missing computers and shoddy recordkeeping comes at an awkward time for County Executive Janet S. Owens. This month, the Democrat said the county may require tax increases to increase - or even maintain - government services.

"It's very hard to say, `raise fees' or `raise taxes' when the government can't account for what it owns," said County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican. "We have a trustee responsibility to account for the dollars the citizens have given us."

Sutherland could not be reached for comment about the audit.

The report, obtained yesterday by The Sun through a public records request, also found that:

Of a separate sample of 36 computers, all purchased in the past two years, five laptops valued at $8,900 were missing. And of the 31 that were located, 26 were not recorded in inventory records.

During one month this year, county departments purchased $34,700 in computer equipment without proper approvals.

Records on computer disposal were incomplete.

One person has custody of surplus property, authority to dispose of the property and the responsibility to maintain the records. The report states, "These duties are not compatible."

The county's Office of Information Technology spent about $1.5 million on computer equipment purchases each of the past two fiscal years and other departments bought more, the report states.

Fred Schram, who took over as Owens' central services officer 10 months ago, said yesterday that he didn't want to play down the "dismal" job of recordkeeping done by the county.

But he said his department has been in the process of installing a new inventory system and will soon make a fresh count of all county property. He said the county administration was aware of the problem before the audit.

"This is going to improve the way we do business," he said.

Owens said she inherited part of the inventory problem when she took office five years ago, and that it is not relevant to a possible tax increase.

"There was a problem," she said. "I think we're absolutely on the way to solving the problem."

Keeping track of computers has proved difficult for several government agencies.

Last year, the Justice Department reported that it lost track of 400 laptops, some containing national security and law enforcement information.

That disclosure occurred about the same time the Internal Revenue Service said it couldn't account for an unknown number of the 6,600 computers it lent to volunteers. Those computers, the agency said, might have contained information including private bank account numbers.

Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issues, said many people are convinced that government fiscal problems can be solved by finding waste, fraud and abuse.

"For those people," he said, "it's going to be a hot moment."

The report offers several suggestions to the county, and Schram said he is in the process of implementing many of them.

The auditor's staff selected its sample of 30 computers - the one that found 24 were missing - from a list compiled the last time a physical inventory count was conducted, in 1999, Owens' first full year in office.

Schram said most of the computers were likely disposed of. "We have too much of a demand for technology," he said. "If a piece were to be lost, it would be an issue."

Samorajczyk said she puts little faith in any such theory about where the computers went. "We can draw any conclusion we want, because there's no data," she said.

The auditor's office selected its other sample - of 36 computers purchased in the past two years - to see if the county administration properly accounts for new computers. In addition to not being able to locate five laptops, the auditor found that $61,500 of equipment locked in storage was not recorded in inventory.

To find the $34,700 of equipment purchased without proper approval, the auditor examined the 30 purchase orders initiated by departments in May, the report states. Nine orders - for 16 computers and seven printers - were not reviewed or approved by the technology office. The report states, "Without [its] approval, the departments could purchase incompatible or superfluous equipment."

Inventory records show the county disposed of nearly $950,000 worth of computer equipment between 1999 and August. The auditor's report found that the central services office did not note the disposal method for 653 items valued at nearly $300,000.

It also found that 15 items listed in the 1999 count were deleted, without explanation, from the current listing.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.