Auditor bill returns to council agenda

Proposal lets county hire independent accountant

January 25, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County has moved once again to fall in line with the other executive-led jurisdictions in the metropolitan area by hiring an independent auditor to oversee its financial operations.

A bill introduced at the County Council meeting Tuesday grants the council the authority to hire a part-time accountant or to contract with an accounting company and give them the full power of an independent auditor.

The legislation was sponsored by Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing the Bel Air area, and Council President Robert S. Wagner.

It also has the support of at least three other council members who did not have time to have their names listed on the bill before it was submitted. They are Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican representing Havre de Grace, Perryman and Abingdon; Richard C. Slutzky, whose district includes Aberdeen; and Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council who represents Joppa and Edgewood areas.

Harford is the only county in the metropolitan area under the direction of a county executive that does not have a full-time auditor.

Cassilly said the council is responsible for the review and oversight of about $500 million of the county's budget each year.

If passed, the new auditor bill would be put on the ballot in November. Voters would have to approve a change in the county charter to accommodate the proposed auditor.

The new bill was introduced two weeks after the council killed a similar proposal to hire a full-time internal auditor.

Opponents of the earlier bill took advantage of Stepp's absence, due to illness, to reject hiring a county auditor. Stepp said she would have voted for that bill, which then would have passed.

Wagner said at the time that there was no need for a full-time auditor and he was opposed to expanding the size of the government.

The administration was also opposed to the measure, saying that Harford County was not as big as Baltimore County or Anne Arundel County and did not need a full-time staff member to oversee the county's finances.

The administration, however, moved to provide the council with $75,000 a year to hire an accountant on a contractual basis.

One of the changes in the new bill, Cassilly said, is that the part-time or contract auditor can be designated by the council as "the county auditor," and that person will have the power to perform any investigations requested by the council.

"This bill will give our investigator the power they need," Cassilly said.

He compared the "county auditor" vs. someone hired by the county but not given the title of "county auditor" to the difference between a private investigator and the police.

"Someone could tell the private investigator to bug off," he said.

Stepp called the new proposal "good governance with a good checks-and-balance system."

Guthrie sees the new bill as a good first step, but he eventually wants the council to hire a full-time auditor.

"I don't think this is adequate at all," he said. "If we request one audit by an accounting company, we could eat up the entire $75,000."

Guthrie said an auditor would save the county more than enough money to offset the cost of his or her salary.

"We could use an auditor to get a fix on the school population projections," Guthrie said. "If we had our own auditor, we could say, `Go audit the school system's numbers.' We could order an audit of any department that we felt was necessary."

Under the proposed legislation, Slutzky said, the county would continue to use the public accounting firm of Reznick, Fedder & Silverman to perform the normal county audit needed for bond ratings, while the new person would perform investigations requested by the council.

County Executive James M. Harkins said that he "was fine with the proposed arrangement." He said the administration's past opposition to the county hiring a full-time auditor was related to cost.

"We did not want to see a whole new bureaucracy that might cost $1 million. That would be too expensive," Harkins said.

No date has been set to vote on the bill.

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