A June 3 editorial (“A foolhardy attempt to gut auditor’s office”) explored the concerns of the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) regarding counties’ option to use state or private auditing services, and the potential political overtones. But the editorial failed to give a fair representation of what this discussion is really about: equity among local units of government in Minnesota.
Missing was an explanation of why the OSA thinks a certified public accountant (CPA) firm would be less able to provide a thorough and competent audit of a local government. Taxpayers, counties and legislators from both sides of the aisle have been asking for an explanation of this assertion for years and have never received a straightforward answer.
Specifically, why is it less than transparent and accountable for counties to ask for the ability to choose between using a CPA firm or the OSA for their annual audit, when other local units of government (school districts, townships and most cities) already have this authority? These local units of government also use taxpayer dollars to deliver critical services to constituents, so why are counties singled out as the last remaining governmental entity not permitted the same right?
The editorial made a clear assumption that private CPA firms, who are held to internationally recognized accounting principles and reviewed by the OSA, are not able to hold governments accountable. But if the OSA doesn’t believe private CPA firms are able to offer that transparency to county constituents, then that logic should also push the OSA to lobby to ban CPA firms from auditing other local units of government.
As locally elected leaders directly accountable to constituents, county commissioners know firsthand the important role transparency plays in government. When mistakes or oversights happen, counties are quick to correct and ameliorate any underlying issue. The OSA’s political call for transparency does not supersede counties’ already-existing self-interest to correct and amend any critical findings in an audit, no matter whether those audits are public or private.
While it is clear that the OSA has chosen to label this desire for equity as an attack against transparency and accountability, counties would argue the opposite. For the past decade, the Association of Minnesota Counties has held the belief that all local units of government should be treated the same way during the annual auditing process. Counties have reached out to the OSA on several occasions to protest this clear inequity and to voice concerns about rising costs, occasional miscommunication and lack of timely reporting.
While the association played no role in drafting the original legislative language, we choose to come forward now in an attempt to redirect this conversation from political banter to sound policy debate, centered on fairness, quality and accountability.
Counties firmly believe that the state auditor has a critically important job of ensuring that taxpayer dollars are well spent and accounted for. Counties respect the state auditor’s role and find the office a great resource for managing the countless new mandates, rules and authorities to which counties must adapt after each legislative session.
There should not be an assumption that a choice between being audited by the OSA and private CPA firms would mean a loss of business for the OSA, especially if the OSA offers a timely and cost-effective audit. In fact, many counties state that they will continue to use the office even if provided a choice. However, they reiterate their desire for fair treatment of all local units of government.
What this debate boils down to is fairness. Is it fair to require Minnesota county taxpayers to foot the bill for a service that is already not required for all other local units of government in Minnesota?
Christopher N. Shoff is a Freeborn County commissioner and the 2015 president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.