The town of Mills should be congratulated for its efforts to improve government operations and restore faith in local leadership after an embezzlement scandal.
Officials are looking to fill the newly created position of town administrator to supervise day-to-day transactions and function as a liaison between Town Council and other departments. The town bought a more advanced accounting system for $40,000, conducts polygraphs on employees who handle money and has built in redundancies that make such episodes far less likely. A CPA will also conduct an annual town audit.
Those are all positive steps, ones that should help the town win back any public trust it lost in the wake of the financial fiasco, in which former treasurer Lisa Whetstone embezzled about $60,000.
But Mills’ actions, no matter how productive they are, can solve only part of the problem. The main problem here is that small-town governments simply aren’t subject to enough state oversight.
Wyoming doesn’t audit its small-town governments as often as it used to. Such bodies were audited every four years until 1992, when the Department of Audit’s budget was cut. Only when its budget increased in 2005 was the department able to resume the audits – and even then, they were on a limited basis. Mills hadn’t undergone an audit in almost 30 years before it was randomly selected for one in 2015. That’s when the embezzlement was discovered.
That revelation was hardly an isolated event. A town official is found to be embezzling in the state roughly every three years, according to Pam Robinson, the administrator for the public funds division of the Department of Audit. That figure is shocking on its own, but imagine what that number might be if someone was actually looking regularly. We suspect increased and effective scrutiny might push that number higher at first – but then it would drop as any officials with ill intent realized they were no longer operating in the shadows.
It’s also worrying that the state government is distributing money to municipalities with little thought as to whether those funds are being spent appropriately. Many of these municipal governments can’t balance their budgets without money set aside from the state for cities, towns and counties. That money – which totaled $105 million in discretionary funds from the state during this two-year budget cycle and which municipalities are trying to ensure is available again during the next one — is precious to them. It should be treated that way at both levels of government.
Cash-strapped governments also shouldn’t be put off by the price tag of such audits. The expense might pale in comparison with the amount the municipality stands to lose via embezzlement. In fact, regular audits could be especially valuable for towns that don’t have the resources to take the action that Mills did to prevent such theft from happening again.
This case underlines the importance of state oversight of small local governments. The state should seriously consider the risks of continuing to leave these matters to chance – before an even bigger loss is allowed to take place.