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Not Invited By County Commissioners

Election officials claim input not being sought

Two key Klickitat County officials who were elected to oversee the county's financial business say they are being excluded from much of the county's fiscal management process.

Auditor Diana Housden and Treasurer Dani Burton, both of whom were elected to four-year terms in 1998, are concerned that their expertise is being ignored in the county's planning process, and errors may be made as a result.

"The treasurer and auditor are elected to represent the public as part of the executive branch of government, but we are not included in management decisions," Housden said. "It's not that we have the authority to make decisions, but we should be included in the information gathering. By the time we find out about something, the resolution has already been passed."

Burton said she felt cut off from policy planning.

"By statute, I'm the county's debt manager. Yet when the county has long-term debt planning strategy meetings, I'm never invited," Burton said. "They could have a wonderful strategy for all I know. Unfortunately, it isn't shared."

Burton said that's not an effective way to handle county business.

"I say sorry, we can't do this, and they have to go back and amend it. I don't like doing things twice when it can be done right the first time," Burton said. "And I really resent it when it ends up painting me with a brush of being an obstructionist. I'm not. But it's hard to be a debt-manager when they won't let me know what the debt is."

Housden said plans for two recent expenditures raised questions, yet she claims the County Commissioners had not asked for input beforehand.

"When I found out they wanted to give $80,000 to MCEDD [Mid-Columbia Economic Development Department, for a revolving loan fund] and $500,000 to the Port of Klickitat [to help pay for a new building on Port property], I said `wait a minute, these are not appropriate,'" Housden said.

The Port of Klickitat wants to build a 30,000-square-foot building at Bingen Point, which the Port would own. The county's $500,000 grant would be a part of an overall funding package.

Diane Sherwood, manager of the Port of Klickitat, said she was not aware of any concern regarding the proposed grant.

"I'm counting on that money," Sherwood said. "It's a challenge to figure out where the money is coming from. There is virtually no vacant industrial space in the Gorge. If we don't build it, these companies will have to go to Portland."

Housden contends the county doesn't have authority to build Port of Klickitat buildings because the Port is a separate taxing entity.

"It would be gifting of public funds," she said. "Probably 95 percent of these ideas are terrific projects, but as they're formulated a lot of them we can't do for legal or technical reasons."

Mindy Chambers, a spokesperson for the Washington Auditor's Office, said RCW 43-09-210 prohibits one fund from benefiting another.

"There may be some specific reason why it can be allowed in this case, but it's up to the county to show what that is," Chambers said. "The question is, what authority is the county citing that allows it to make the grant. It's possible it would be in violation of state law."

County Commission Chair Don Struck said the money for the Port has been budgeted.

"If the Port can come up with the rest of the funds, our $500,000 would be available," Struck said. "Our legal firm in Seattle is making sure it's legal. Our attorneys think we can do this legally. Of course, we have to prove a benefit to taxpayers and the county, but our justification is it creates jobs. That's our number one goal, and the Port has the best opportunity to create jobs."

Housden pointed out that the county recently created the position of chief financial officer, which she claims is taking traditional duties away from her office.

Glen Chipman became the county's CFO in December 2001. Before that, Chipman headed the Central Services Department, a role he held since he was hired by the county in April 1996.

"Chipman controls accounting systems, which I'm supposed to have. He tells me what information I can have and can't have," Housden said. "And he does the preliminary budget, which is supposed to be the function of the auditor. Then we're put in a bad light after the fact. It makes us look nitpicky."

Chipman said he has been working on the county's budget since 1997.

"I assemble the budget and work with the board [County Commissioners] on getting that through to adoption," he explained. "The last few years, it's been a fairly smooth process. Once the budget is adopted, it becomes the auditor's responsibility for proper expenditure. And the auditor does the annual report."

Chipman said the auditor is free to attend all the budget sessions.

"Everybody is invited. She's been welcome to attend if she feels she needs to," Chipman said.

"We try to always present the schedule of our meeting and list the topics," Struck added.

Struck said this particular conflict has been ongoing.

"Our auditor feels she should have that authority, but the law clearly allows counties to have a CFO for budget preparation," Struck said. "She has oversight on making sure the budget is prepared properly. We feel we have the authority to have him on the staff."

Struck said the duties of Chipman and Housden were not overlapping.

"They should ostensibly work arm in arm, but there's been this rift between the auditor and the commissioners the last couple of years," Struck said. "It's a communication thing."

Struck added that the county recently reorganized its accounting staff.

"We made some changes so he [Chipman] could be more of a CFO, and spend more time crunching numbers and keeping an eye on the money," Struck said.

In March, in response to questions raised by Housden, the Washington Attorney General's Office issued an informal opinion that stated counties can't assign a chief financial officer to take duties away from the publicly-elected auditor.

"You have asked whether a ... county may create a position entitled `chief financial officer' and transfer to that position powers and duties traditionally performed by the county auditor ... I believe the answer is no," wrote Stacia Holler, assistant attorney general in Olympia, on March 14. "This response represents my considered legal conclusion but does not constitute an opinion of the Attorney General."

Chipman said he was not aware of that finding.

"It's the first I've heard of it," he said.

Ron Ihrig, a Republican who served a four-year term as commissioner from 1993-96, said the auditor handled the budget during his time in office.

"When I was commissioner, we always had the auditor doing the budget, and the preliminary budget as well," Ihrig said. "The way it's set up right now I don't know, but by RCW the auditor is still responsible to prepare the budget for the board."

Burton said she believes it would be in the county's best interest to take more of a team approach.

"Instead, they have a core group making decisions," Burton explained. "No one person can know everything -- that's why we have all these elected officers. The County Commissioners make the decisions, but each of us -- clerk, treasurer, assessor, auditor -- have areas where we need to make the policy because we're the ones responsible. I don't expect them to always take my advice, but I do expect them to listen to it. I've heard them say, `You're responsible to report to us.' No, I'm not. I report to the public."

Struck pointed out that the county's Finance Committee includes the auditor and the treasurer.

"I've tried to make sure they're in the loop on the budget process," Struck said. "I let them know of the schedule for the workshops and try to make them feel they're welcome. I've strived to make sure people who need to be in the loop are there."

Housden said she did not mind making her concerns public.

"I haven't said anything here that I haven't said to them [the County Commissioners]," she explained.

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