Op-Ed: Bring accountability to all levels of government
As the state faces another massive budget shortfall in the 2011-13 biennium, state leaders should demand financial accountability and transparency at every level of state government. After reading the recent State Auditor reports on the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) and the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) expenditures, it is clear more must be done to ensure the millions of taxpayers' dollars are spent responsibly.
This is not the first time I have raised the red flag about financial accountability in state environmental projects. In 2007, I introduced House Bill 1598, which was signed into law. It forced the Salmon Recovery Board to be more transparent with its expenditures and ensure project information is available to the public.
I fear the PSP and RCO have gone the way of the Salmon Recovery Board prior to my legislation. They may have well-intentioned goals but it appears the agencies are focused more on spending, than results and accountability.
The state auditor's report highlights large shortfalls in fiscal stewardship, noting that PSP's critical water project dollars were spent on clothing, lip balm and other non-essentials. The RCO audit outlined a stunning lack of fiscal accountability.
According to the auditor's findings on the RCO, “The Agency cannot ensure grant funds are being used for their intended purposes or that the state is receiving everything it paid for. Our review of 12 projects found concerns related to a park improvement project.” The audit found that while 37 benches were paid for, only four were in place upon “completion” of the project. Likewise, 16 tables were purchased and only 15 delivered. Kiosk and trail signs paid for were also absent.
The RCO noted the many missing items at inspection, but paid the bills anyway. Equally stunning is the finding that receipts, timesheets and all collateral invoices for projects were not provided by the contractor as part of standard procedure for payment. The agency's response to this lapse in accountability was, “Requiring sub-recipients to copy and mail thousands of individual receipts, invoices and timesheet [sic] is time consuming and is not consistent with the state's commitment to sustainability.”
Are they saying the carbon footprint created by responsible accounting of taxpayers' dollars is too large? This is an unacceptable excuse for incompetence. The public has a right to know if their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent wisely and in ways that show measureable proof that the goals outlined for the expenditures were met.
Among other things, the auditor found the PSP circumvented competitive bidding by undercutting a contract to stay under the $20,000 threshold. In the end, the contract was paid at a substantial increase: $51,498.
This “wink and a nod” quid pro quo policy of rewarding political friends with contracts, in this case the law firm that helped write the legislation creating the PSP, is one reason citizens distrust government. Equally troubling is the excuse that laws governing state agency contracting policies were not followed because the agency was “rushed” to start projects. These laws are in place for a reason and are not optional.
Part of the problem is state environmental agency overlap and duplication. This has created a web of money funneling that cannot be tracked effectively. The Department of Ecology, Salmon Recovery Board, the Climate Action Team, RCO, PSP as well as the myriad of local growth management and shorelines groups are intertwined and confusing to unravel.
In a 2007 interview with the Spokesman-Review newspaper, I warned the PSP could become “a cumbersome new bureaucracy.” I added that, “I'd like to see these things measured in results, rather than money spent.” My worry has always been that when state agencies are left unmonitored and unaccountable, taxpayer dollars can easily be wasted.
The good news is it's not too late to create lasting reforms that save money, consolidate environmental agencies and create a more effective and accountable government. Taxpayers deserve a government that is transparent, accountable and run by people who understand every dollar spent is first earned by a hard-working citizen.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, is the deputy leader for the House Republicans in Washington state.