Yellowstone County Courthouse

The Yellowstone County Courthouse

CHASE DOAK, Gazette Staff

In Montana, the county auditor doesn’t actually audit county financial statements.

In compliance with state law, Yellowstone County hires a professional accounting firm to conduct an independent annual audit to determine whether the county is adhering to Government Accounting Standards and properly separating duties of handling funds to prevent errors and fraud. The county has had a clean independent audit report for many years.

Another state law requires that counties with a population of more than 15,000 have a “county auditor”, who need not be an accountant, but whose job is basically to be an accounts payable clerk. Yellowstone County budgeted $231,000 this year for the auditor’s office now staffed by County Auditor Debby Hernandez, one full-time and one part-time assistant.

First elected in 2003, Hernandez has announced she will retire on Nov. 30. The County Commission is in the process of appointing her replacement.

We call on Commissioners John Ostlund, Robyn Driscoll and Denis Pitman to seriously consider why they are planning to appoint a person to continue an office that checks the work of the finance office staff who also are being paid to check bills and payroll.

When state statute first decreed that counties with 15,000 residents needed auditors to double-check bills, bookkeeping was by hand and adding machine. Now the county’s computer system allows fast, accurate data management and runs the required reports quickly.

Several of Montana’s larger population counties have consolidated the auditor’s office with another elected office, according to the Montana Association of Counties. For example, Lewis and Clark County and Lake County, combined the auditor with clerk and recorder. In Cascade and Flathead counties, the auditor’s office has been combined with the clerk and recorder and surveyor. Ravalli County consolidated the auditor into the county attorney’s office.

State law requires Yellowstone County to have an auditor, and state law also authorized the County Commission to consolidate county offices. Yellowstone County commissioners previously have used that authority to streamline government operations. For example, Sherry Long is the county assessor, treasurer and county superintendent of schools. Once upon a time, three different elected officeholders divided that job in three separate offices.

Neither Montana cities nor school districts are required to have elected auditors who review accounts payable, yet they have the same responsibility for ensuring that public money is spent properly. Cities and school districts employ financial officers or bookkeepers. So does the county. The county finance office staff includes two CPAs.

The county auditor isn’t a CPA, nor are the office assistants. In fact, the only qualifications set out in law for the county auditor is to be a county resident of voting age with no felony record.

There may have been a time when having this office was necessary to efficient government. But today the county auditor, as defined in Montana law, is a redundant office. Yellowstone County shouldn’t spend $231,000 on redundancy.

Before appointing a new auditor, commissioners should consider why they would want to continue the office. Because we’ve always done things that way?

It may be time for a change. By consolidating the auditor’s office with another, the county may be able to get state-required reports issued while saving taxpayer money. It’s worth a serious look.