Department leaders in charge of budget compliance | SteamboatToday.com

Department leaders in charge of budget compliance

Brandon Gee

— Although the Routt County Finance Department and the Board of County Commissioners play an oversight role in monitoring departmental budgets, the county ultimately relies on department heads to comply with approved expenditures.

County officials project the Routt County Sheriff’s Office will exceed its $4.3 million budget by almost $300,000 this year, an overage that has alarmed the commissioners – in a year when county revenues are projected to be down $1.9 million – and spurred the latest political battle between them and Sheriff Gary Wall.

Routt County Finance Director Dan Strnad said his department is charged with overseeing county finances and periodically reviews department budgets. Strnad said Wednesday that he brought the Sheriff’s Department overage to the commissioners’ attention.

Overtime is the Sheriff’s Office budget item most responsible for the projected excess. Strnad and Mary Sue Sorenson, the county accountant assigned to the Sheriff’s Office, realized Wall was running above his overtime budget earlier in the year, but they didn’t become alarmed until August. Historically, Strnad said, such overages are the result of high turnover and are compensated for by salaries that aren’t being paid. But by August, it became clear that overtime wasn’t going to be offset.

“What happened in August is we had a meeting with the sheriff and said, ‘Something’s going on here,'” Strnad said. “It looked like it wasn’t going to come back in line this year.”

Response due today

“We rely on our department heads to follow their budgets,” Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said Wednesday. “If they are foreseeing any overages, we ask them to let us know as soon as they see something like that or think it may even be on the horizon. All of our other department heads do that. : In the end, we are the oversight, but it’s hard to do the oversight when we don’t have the data available.”

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Wall has said he did keep the commissioners informed about circumstances that might put him over budget and said all his expenditures have been legitimate. The commissioners’ Sept. 23 letter to Wall makes clear that they are not prepared to take Wall at his word.

“Throughout both 2007 and 2008, year-to-date budget information has been posted on the county’s computer system on a monthly basis,” the letter states. “All county department heads, including elected officials, are expected to review their department’s budget performance information on a monthly basis and are chargeable with knowledge of that information. In the case of your department, it appears that this has not been done. This raises the question of what management procedures have been in place in your department to avoid going over budget.”

The letter asks a number of questions and requests supporting documentation related to Wall’s budget management procedures. A response from Wall was requested by today, as was a meeting with the commissioners by Tuesday.

Wall said Thursday that he was working on his response, which is likely to fall short of the commissioners’ expectations. Wall said the Sheriff’s Office’s budget is not sophisticated enough to provide the level of specificity the commissioners are requesting. Wall is vowing to change the budget’s organization to answer such questions in the future.

“What we’re doing is the best we can with the records we have,” Wall said. “We inherited this budgeting process from the last administration. : They never asked for that before, but they’re asking for it now. We are changing our accounting process from what we inherited to satisfy the commissioners and what it appears they want now.”

In the meantime, the political wrangling has put Strnad and his staff in an awkward position.

“We try to help all the departments out,” Strnad said, “but it’s ultimately their budget. We do that same thing for every department. It’s kind of a team effort.

“It’s taken on a little bit different flavor in this situation,” he continued. “It’s putting us between the two departments, and we ultimately work for the (commissioners). We’ve never really had anything like this before. We’ve had issues, but nothing quite like this.”