Wood wants more action on audits

North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood (Official picture)
April 30, 2013 5:28:25 PM PDT
It's one of the most common complaints about state government: waste. That's as in wasted money, time and resources. Year after year, state audits point out problems in government agencies, but change often comes slowly, if at all.

The ABC11 I-Team looked into why the state is leaving millions on the table and ignoring its own advice. We reviewed audits put out over the past couple years that show where the state was wasting money, where it needed better oversight, and better quality control.  

Did agencies listen? Were changes made?  Is the money flowing back into state coffers? We found that depends on the agency and the audit.

The Department of Transportation, Administrative Office of the Courts, Industrial Commission, Department of Commerce, Department of Justice, Department of Environment and Natural Resources - they're all state agencies with one thing in common. They've all received critical audits written by North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood.

"If the laws are in place, the General Assembly at some time said, we need to be doing these things, and then nobody is carrying this out, then why bother with the laws at all," said Wood.

Wood seems to remember just about every audit she's put out and every taxpayer dollar her reports could save.

Two summers ago, in a report on the Administrative Office of the Courts, she reported it hadn't collected more than $30 million in fines because its computer systems couldn't talk to each other.

"$30 million that would go into the public school system in North Carolina," Wood explained.

Last year, an audit showed the DOT was missing out on millions in uncollected fines that it wasn't even looking for.

"When we brought it to their attention, immediately, within just a short period of time, they found $12 million that could have been immediately collected," said Wood.

A similar audit pointed out millions uncollected by the Industrial Commission.

"They weren't even assessing them to begin with. Hard to collect them when you don't even know where they are - that's right," Wood offered.

Wood's audits don't just focus on money wasted. They also shine a light on state resources wasted, programs mismanaged - or in some cases - not managed at all. An audit of the Commerce Department found $80 million in taxpayer dollars doled out in grants with very spotty oversight.

But in that case, nothing changed after the audit until just a few weeks ago when the Governor announced an overhaul of the Commerce Department. Under the new plan - subject to legislative approval - the Department would move to a public-private model and the grant program for non-profits would be subject to more oversight, an agency spokesperson told ABC11.

But the I-Team has learned it's not unusual for audits to be put up on a shelf or discarded altogether.

Sometimes, agencies have reasons for ignoring Wood's audits, but sometimes, not. In the seven audits we looked at, Wood says only two agencies made real, meaningful changes.

For Wood, though, that's still two in the plus column.

"We are seeing changes," she said. "We think we're making headway and that things are being done."

And a new law is working its way through the state legislature that could lend more bite to Wood's bark. It would require lawmakers to look at each audit and agency responses within three months.

"If they've got to report back, here's what we said we were going to do, and here's our progress, you can rest assured that things are going to start changing," said Wood.

Among the changes Wood's audits have brought about: The Department of Justice tells us it's now ensuring that all state contracts over a million dollars are approved by a state lawyer. The Department of Correction is now saving more than $10 million a year on medical services. And, the permitting process at DENR stands to move a lot more quickly.

"There were holes in the process so that a reviewer literally could put it on their desk and let it lay there for months," said Wood.

New DENR secretary John Skvarla says he hasn't put new procedures in place because of the audit, but he has made it clear things must change.

"You don't need regulations, do your job," he explained.

Wood says she's encouraged by Skvarla's promises, but plans to go back to DENR next year to see if things are being done differently. In fact, Wood says she's going to circle back on a lot of audits from the past four years for one simple reason.

"It can work to the benefit of the people of North Carolina," she said.

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