Hawkins Wants Audits To Address City's Big Problems
Calls for External Audit of the City Auditor's Office
Howie Hawkins, the Green candidate for Syracuse City Auditor, released today a list of high-priority topics for city audits and special projects by the City Auditor's Office. The list is appended at the end.
“The City Auditor's Office could be doing so much more to the help the city. It should be the voters' public interest research group. Given its limited resources, it should prioritize audits and special projects that help the city address the big problems its faces, including struggling schools, failing infrastructure, high poverty, and fiscal distress,” Hawkins said.
Topping Hawkins' list was an audit of the timeliness of city financial reports. He said it typically takes nine months for the city's external auditors to certify the city's financial statements.
“If it takes the city so long to know its real financial position, it has to adversely affect budget management and the costs of doing business on a daily basis with lenders and contractors, including external auditors whose cost to the city has tripled since these external audits were instituted in 1995. These uncertainties on the city's financial position may explain the big surpluses and deficits the city and school district have run in recent years, such as the $19.7 million surplus for education in fiscal year 2013-14, the last year for which we have audited financial statements,” Hawkins said.
External Audit of the City Auditor's Office
Hawkins also called for an external audit of the City Auditor's Office. The city charter requires such an audit every other year, but such an audit has not been done in at least 20 years.
“Since it has been so long since an audit of the City Auditor's Office has been conducted, I would like a comprehensive audit that assesses not only the operations and finances of the office, but also gauges the responsibilities outlined in the city charter and budgets against the resources the office has to work with and makes recommendations in that light,” Hawkins said.
While municipalities often trade audits of each other for external audits of their operations, Hawkins said that in this case, given the length of time since any previous audit, he would seek to get an audit of the auditor's office done by an auditing agency with substantial resources, such as the state comptroller, the New York City comptroller, or county comptroller.
Financial Audits Required by the City Charter
Hawkins noted that the city charter requires monthly audits of the Department of Finance and annual audits of all city departments, the school district, and the housing authority. He said that the four-person staff for the City Auditor's Office provided for in recent budgets is insufficient to do all of these financial audits in that time frame. The hiring of an external auditor to do the city's annual financial reports since 1995 was instituted in recognition of this staffing limitation.
Hawkins said he would look to the recommendations of an external audit to help address this problem. In the meantime, he said the city auditor's office should do these audits over a multi-year plan of work.
He also said that he would do an annual analytical budget audit to seek understanding and recommendations concerning variances between budgeted and actual spending and revenues in the various city departments and agencies.
Economic and Fiscal Policy Audits
Among the audits Hawkins listed as high priority were the costs and benefits of PILOTs and tax breaks for businesses, the economic and policy consequences of recent city-county shared service agreements, the long-term fiscal sustainability of the city, and the potential fiscal impact on the school district as 18 of 34 city schools go through the receivership process that may result in large sums of money following students out of the school district to privately-managed charter schools.
Hawkins wants to do follow-up audits of previous audits, including former City Auditor Minch Lewis' 2003 audit of the costs of drug law enforcement and former City Auditor Phil LaTessa's 2008 audit of the Time Warner Franchise. Hawkins noted that the Time Warner Franchise with the city continues as is, though its expiration date was in 2007 and much of the language in it dates from the original cable franchise agreement in 1977, long before today's digital broadband technology came into use. He also noted that in 2010 Verizon stopped building out the fiber-optic network after it finished in Eastwood and the eastside, though it had told the city when it started in 2005 that it would build it out citywide. Hawkins said a study of the city's options for broadband services is needed, including the option of broadband services provided by a municipally-owned utility.
Social Policy Audits
Other topics on Hawkins' list focused on questions of social policy affecting segregation, discrimination, poverty, employment, and education, including school segregation, Say Yes, predatory lending and Community Reinvestment Act compliance, the city's Equal Employment Opportunity Program, and enforcement of the “Ban the Box” ordinance adopted last year.
Hawkins said that while improving the city's financial reporting and fiscal efficiency was something he hoped voters of all parties or no party could support, he did bring some ideas as a Green candidate to the City Auditor's Office that would be new.
Environmental audits are in order, Hawkins said, to assess whether the city is liable for violations of environmental laws and regulations. Hawkins would take environmental audits a step further by tracking a set of indicators of economic welfare and environmental sustainability that could be used to monitor how city policies are impacting city economic and environmental goals, like reducing unemployment, abandoned properties, and carbon emissions.
Hawkins said he wanted to bring the best practices of other public auditors to Syracuse. In particular, he said he wanted to create a Syracuse version of the New York City Comptroller's award-winning online "Checkbook NYC" transparency tool that tracks in real time, where all can see, the city's budget, revenue, expenditures, payroll, and contracts, including minority and women's business enterprise contracts.
“I think everyone living in and working for the city, and perhaps especially Common Councilors, would welcome this level of timely and transparent information about the city's finances. Checkbook NYC is updated daily. It's software is open-sourced. The only thing that seems to hold back its implementation here is the slowness of our current system of financial reporting, which takes me back to the first audit on my list on the timeliness of city financial reports,” Hawkins said.
Voters' Audit of the City Auditor
Hawkins added that “the very next audit will be done by the voters. The election next Tuesday is the voters' audit of the City Auditor. I hope they will look at the minimal productivity and impact of the current city auditor and decide it is time to elect an independent watchdog for city taxpayers and residents. As a Green in a city where every elected official is now a Democrat, I will enter the office clean of any personal obligations to the people or the party currently making decisions as to how money is spent and what the policy priorities are.”
The incumbent is Democrat Marty Masterpole. No Republican is running.
Priorities for Audits and Special Projects
Timeliness of Financial Reports – How to improve timeliness and accuracy of financial reports.
“Checkbook Syracuse” – A Syracuse version of the New York City Comptroller's award-winning online "Checkbook NYC" transparency tool that tracks in real time, where all can see, the city's budget, revenue, expenditures, payroll, and contracts, including minority and women's business enterprise contracts.
Annual Analytical Budget Audit – Complement external financial audits by providing analysis and recommendations concerning year-end budget variances, such as the $19.7 million school district and $7.5 million public safety surpluses in FY 2013-14.
Financial Audits Required by the City Charter – The city charter requires monthly audits of the Department of Finance and annual audits of all city departments, the school district, and the housing authority. Since the four-person staff for the City Auditor's Office provided for in recent budgets is insufficient to do all of these financial audits in that time frame, these audits should be done on a multi-year plan of work.
Long Term Fiscal Outlook – Projections and options for sustainable revenues.
Tax Expenditures (PILOTs, Tax Breaks) – Costs and benefits.
School Receivership – The fiscal, employment, and educational impact of 18 of the 34 city schools being taken into receivership by the New York State Education Department for likely privatization as charter schools.
Broadband Services – Follow up the 2008 Time Warner Cable Franchise Audit as well as assess the impact Verizon's failure to build out FIOS across the city and city options for broadband services, including a municipally-owned broadband service utility.
Costs of Drug Law Enforcement – Update the 2003 Audit of the costs of drug law enforcement.
Ban the Box – Implementation of the 2014 "Ban the Box" ordinance.
School Segregation – Race and class segregation in city school attendance zones and between city and suburban districts.
Say Yes – Costs and benefits.
Planning of Capital Projects – Projects to be funded by capital budget; coordination among city departments on capital projects.
Evaluations of City/County Shared Service Agreements and Consolidations
Predatory Lending and Community Reinvestment Act Compliance
Equal Employment Opportunity Program – Status of implementation, monitoring, and reporting.
Environmental Audits – Assess the city's risk for liabilities concerning violations of environmental laws and regulations.
Social and Environmental Indicators – Track indicators of economic welfare and environmental sustainability in order to better monitor how city policies impact city economic and environmental goals, like reducing unemployment and carbon emissions.