Johnson County Exploring Spending Policies After Dispute with Auditor

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Johnson County Board of Supervisors wants more checks and balances for county purchases following what was characterized as an inappropriate "spending spree" by the outgoing county auditor.

The supervisors on Thursday discussed several possible short-term and long-term changes to try to gain more oversight of county expenditures.

The discussion followed County Auditor Tom Slockett's recent purchase of about $67,000 worth of voting-related equipment even though the supervisors had budgeted just $4,310 for the expense.

That led to a heated exchange between Slockett and the supervisors last week. Slockett not present at Thursday's meeting.

The supervisors found out about Slockett's purchase – which included 70 laptops, 70 identification scanners, 70 printers and computer bags – after they approved the purchase claims, which are essentially the bills.

The Auditor's Office is charged with reviewing all claims, which then go to the supervisors for a vote. The supervisors say it's unrealistic to expect them to check all of the claims because there can be hundreds each week totaling more than $1 million.

Now, they want to see Auditor's Office claims, and they want those compared with what's in the budget.

They already are keeping an eye on the Auditor's Office and on Thursday withheld approval of $13,000 worth of purchases until getting further clarification on the items. They did the same thing last week and ultimately were satisfied with the answer.

The supervisors also will ask Slockett to alert them of any planned purchases of more than $1,000. Slockett has been Johnson County's auditor and elections commission since 1977, but he lost his re-election bid and will leave office at the end of this year. The supervisors said they're concerned about him buying more non-budgeted items in the next two months.

Long term, the supervisors want to require that technology purchases be coordinated with the Information Technology Department, which did not happen with the instance that set off this dispute.

They also want to consider creating a finance department and requiring purchase claims be signed by a department head, which board Chairman Rod Sullivan said he was "amazed" was not always done now.

Slockett did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday. Last week, he told the supervisors he would leave his office in good financial standing. He also said that the equipment he bought was needed to keep waits down at voting precincts and that his office's overall budget had not been overspent.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said Thursday the budget claim is true, but the county's fiscal year does not end until next June 30, and the supervisors are worried that the office's budget will require cuts elsewhere or budget amendments. He also noted that an elected official like Slockett has the power to spend money within his budget as he sees fit, but the supervisors are responsible for the overall bottom line of the county.

The supervisors, however, ultimately have little power to stop an elected official from spending how he or she likes as long as it does not exceed the department's overall budget. Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the board could refuse to approve purchase claims, but county Attorney Janet Lyness said the county would then risk being sued for failing to pay its bills.

Rettig said the county has lots of auditing and budgeting checks and balances now, but they occur after the fact. County leaders also are trusted to alert the supervisors if they want to go outside the budget. The system works, she said, but the office responsible for checking claims before they're approved went on a "spending spree" in this case.
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