News Column

Whitman County officials willing to spend to get credit rating back on track

June 17, 2014

By William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho



June 17--COLFAX -- Whitman County officials are using a multipronged approach to resolve problems that resulted in an unfavorable state audit report and suspension of the county's credit rating.

Besides seeking assistance from the Washington State Auditor's Office, the commissioners approved a request from County Auditor Eunice Coker Monday, letting her pay for some extra help in the finance area.

They're also prepared to hire a national organization -- at a minimum cost of about $70,000 -- to conduct a comprehensive study of the county's financial practices and recommend improvements.

"If it looks like it will solve some of our problems, we're pretty serious about it," said Commissioner Dean Kinzer during a break Monday.

Despite some recent tension between the commissioners and Coker -- who has been responsible for the financial reports since the fall of 2010 -- they all seem to agree the multipronged approach will help improve the situation.

"I feel really good," Coker said.

Whitman County has struggled with its reporting practices for years. It was "unable to prepare materially accurate financial statements" in fiscal 2004 through '07, according to a recent state audit report, and had internal control deficiencies from 2008 through '11.

The problems intensified last year, when state auditors declined to express an opinion regarding the accuracy of the 2012 financial statements, saying the county "could not provide sufficient support for significant journal entries or determine the cause of material variances between the bank activity, accounting records and financial statement amounts."

The inability to provide this information led to delays in completion of the 2012 audit report, which prompted Standard & Poor's Rating Agency to suspend the county's credit rating in April.

Without a credit rating, County Administrator Gary Petrovich said the county's ability to borrow money "is severely curtailed." He doesn't expect that to change until the 2013 audit is completed, which will be September or October at the earliest.

Besides adding staff to help Coker correct some data-entry issues, Petrovich said the State Auditor's Office Performance Division will meet with county officials next month to discuss cash management and bank transaction practices.

A follow-up meeting in September will review the county's procedures in greater detail, both to ensure they meet best practices and to improve efficiencies.

The performance division assistance is free of charge, Petrovich said. However, the commissioners may also hire the Government Finance Officers Association to conduct a more comprehensive study of the county's financial reporting system. The minimum cost for that is $70,000, and it could be more depending on what options are chosen.

The Government Finance Officers Association is a national organization that helps to promote professional management of government finances.

"It's the best source of information on best practices," Petrovich said. "It would be hard for any (Whitman County) department head or elected official to be in disagreement with it and the State Auditor's Office regarding best practices."

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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(c)2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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Source: Lewiston Morning Tribune (ID)


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