News Column

Whitman officials see bond issue as wake-up call

April 29, 2014

By Bill McKee, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho



April 29--Elected officials seem to be having some trouble working together to resolve issues facing Whitman County's accounting system.

Last week officials announced the county's bond rating had been suspended by Standard & Poor's rating service for failing to finalize its 2012 state audit. Without such a rating, the market will not have any way to measure the county's ability to repay its debt if it goes to a public bond.

Though the Washington State Auditor's Office has confirmed since then its audit of the county's 2012 year is nearly complete -- a finalized report from the state auditors office should be available by mid-May -- the issues that led to the delay, however, remain.

"We're talking about symptoms when we talk about bond ratings, when we talk about audits. Those are, I think, symptoms of the larger comprehensive problem we're seeking to address," Commissioner Michael Largent said Monday.

With the county not seeking to take on any new debt in the immediate future, Largent said the bond rating suspension is really a wake-up call to address problems with the accounting system that led to the delay in the audit, which in turn led to the suspension.

County Auditor Eunice Coker said last week the delay in the audit was caused by a combination of issues, including accounting software installed in 2011 that was never properly set up, a switch from accrual-based accounting to a cost-based approach and a number of changes in key personnel.

During a workshop held last week to discuss the topic -- which just left officials more frustrated -- commissioners told Coker they would like to see a strategic plan to identify the problems and address them, and once such a plan is presented, they would be happy to offer resources to help make it happen, including bringing in outside expertise to help.

"We have not seen a comprehensive plan from the auditor as to how this system will be fixed," Commissioner Art Swannack said Monday. "At the last meeting she talked about a kind of piecemeal approach, but I didn't hear a comprehensive plan."

Another workshop with the commissioners was scheduled for Monday, but last Thursday Coker sent an email to commissioners stating she saw no reason to meet again with the full board on the subject because she felt she had been "blindsided" and "chastised" by board members during meetings last week.

She did say she would continue meeting with Largent, who she said she felt was "on the same page," and would continue to work toward moving the county financial processes into a better model, as well as bring in the SAO Performance Center, designed to help local governments evaluate and address issues with services and programs, including financial management.

Attempts by the Daily News to contact Coker on Monday were unsuccessful.

Swannack responded to Coker's email by stating he had told her what the meetings would be about when he asked her to attend and "no systematic and comprehensive plan" to fix the problems was presented, which, in turn, led to more "difficult discussions."

"I had high hopes for you to be leading a comprehensive solution as we offered vast resources," he wrote. "Those hopes are no longer present."

While no further workshops have been scheduled on the topic, Largent said he would continue to meet with Coker individually on the topic, stating they have had productive conversations in the past.

"They will likely be ongoing discussions. When we have an idea that has merit, I think it will be advanced, as far as resource needs are concerned, through the Board of County Commissioners," he said.

Bill McKee can be reached at (208) 883-4627, or by email to wmckee@dnews.com.

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(c)2014 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho)

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Source: Moscow-Pullman Daily News (ID)