The person responsible for the Grand County Building Department’s missing $500,000 has yet to be formally named and charged. County officials have a good idea of the desk from which the suspicious activity originated, but invoked rural community familiarity and “trust” as their reason for taking 12 years to notice. Still, according to some county officials, red flags began popping up from the building department years prior.
Treasurer Christina Whitmer told the Sky-Hi News she’s heard a profusion of citizens’ concern over her role in preventing the building department scandal, which only came to light last October. However, Whitmer clarified that her role in accounting for individual departments is extremely limited.
“The county treasurer is the county’s bank, and as long as funds are deposited at the bank, they’re safe,” she said.
As Whitmer explained to commissioners during its first public hearing on the scandal last Tuesday, March 4, if the “bank” doesn’t receive any payments, it has no way of knowing they are supposed to exist. Actual balancing, auditing and management of county funds fall to the individual departments, the financial director and the county manager.
Whitmer said she did notice something fishy at the building department years ago, however, which she reported many times.
“Deposits I received in past years showed signs there was a problem. They were checks with very old dates,” she said.
Some deposited checks were dated as far back as 90 days, Whitmer said, a sign that something was wrong. She began noticing the problem several years ago. Since that time, she said she brought up the concern multiple times with building department head Scott Penson, finance director Scott Berger and county manager Lurline Underbrink Curran.
“When I didn’t get a response from one, I’d go up the chain,” she said.
The county manager said she only recalled hearing from the treasurer over the last year that checks were being held too long. Underbrink Curran also said she tried to look into the matter.
“Sometimes people will issue a check, but you’re still waiting for engineering approval on something,” Underbrink Curran said. “At least twice during that period, that was the reason one of the checks was older. That was a valid reason and seemed appropriate.”
Finance director Berger confirmed the treasurer had reported lagging deposits before 2013.
“She had complained the building department wasn’t making deposits in a timely manner,” he said. “They weren’t processing things as they got them, that’s for sure.”
As finance director, however, Berger said there was little he could do to respond.
“Within the county, the finance director doesn’t have any authority over any of the elected or appointed officials,” he said. “I’m just one of (the county manager’s) staff.”
The finance department’s role is to prepare the yearly budget and a year-end report to be submitted to the county commissioners and the state. He also reviews checks and warrants submitted by departments to make sure they can adequately support their need for the expense. Berger’s department doesn’t have the ability to track receipts or deposits from the county deposits. Instead, the county decided to have department heads summarize receipts and report to the treasurer, who would then report to Berger’s department.
Berger came in around 2005, so he hasn’t worked in the county’s finance department during the entire 12-year period the alleged theft occurred in the building department. But when he did become involved with the county’s finances, he tried to bring more accountability to each department.
Berger set up optional subsidiary accounting systems for departments with large cash flows so they had the ability to monitor their receipts. He was able to convince the clerk and recorder’s office, the sheriff’s department and planning and zoning to get on board. Every time Berger approached the building department, however, Penson declined.
“I offered to do it for the building department on numerous occasions, but they weren’t interested,” Berger said. “They had their own (Microsoft) Access database they used to track receipts, and in his opinion, that was adequate.”
After county officials realized money had gone missing from the building department, they worked to reconstruct what had happened and put new accountability measures into place. According to Berger, one of the requirements was to install the subsidiary accounting system he had recommended to Penson several times before, a system Berger said is now “working great” to track the department’s revenue.
Part of the problem in the building department was than an employee was allegedly taking money before it was ever recorded or deposited.
“There isn’t really system in the world that will catch somebody from taking money that isn’t being tracked, recorded or deposited,” Berger said.
The new system will be able to catch any similar future activity by catching discrepancies between permits going out and funds coming in. Whenever a permit or contractor license application comes into the building department, the system will record the transaction. Once the application review process is completed, it’s recorded in the system again, noting a permit or license is ready to be issued and how much is owed.
“So we have a system that anticipates what is owed, and you can see money received against those items, then you know what hasn’t been collected or deposited,” Berger said.
Even in a small community that values trust, Berger said his experience in auditing and accounting has taught him otherwise.
“My philosophy is that yeah, you can trust people, but you need to verify,” Berger said. “You also need to not tempt them. Controls can’t be so loose that people are tempted beyond their ability to do the right thing.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.