Wyoming’s small towns are unique treasures. They require participation from their citizens because, after all, even if the population is 500, somebody is going to have to step up and be mayor. And that person is going to donate a lot of time and energy for little or no financial compensation.
Some of Wyoming’s towns, off on their own, miles from the state capitol geographically and culturally, develop their own ways of doing things.
And without some assistance in monitoring how they govern, assistance that came from the state before budget cuts in 1992, city officials can get inventive.
They could make innocent, but incorrect assumptions about what the city owes them. Or they could make intentional decisions about public resources that never are monitored. In other words, with no oversight, people can behave badly.
It would be foolish to assume that elected officials of Wyoming’s 79 towns with populations under 4,000 are acting responsibly at all times.
Those particular towns are not required to have audits by certified public accountants each year, as the cities with larger populations are.
And here’s how that worked out in the town of La Barge, population 551.
After years of no audits, some citizens became dissatisfied with the policy of providing free water and sewer service to the mayor, which, as it turns out, violates the Wyoming Constitution. It bans towns from making such donations.
The mayor himself asked for an audit, which found 14 accounting errors, including giving the mayor free utilities.
Then it took nearly two years for the La Barge Town Council to change the policy. Some of the residents became angry, and complained that there was no one to crack down on the town.
The Wyoming Department of Audit hasn’t regularly audited small towns in Wyoming since its staff was cut in 1992.
Towns can ask for an audit, and they do, but the department receives more requests than it can handle, according to the department administrator.
And even when audits are done, the department is toothless. It can’t fine or jail; it can only refer problems to the state attorney general’s office. Two deputies in that office say they don’t know of a town that has been prosecuted in recent years.
No oversight has produced the expected result – cases of loose handling of public resources. A Star-Tribune study of audits of Wyoming towns turned up a rogue’s gallery of issues.
An audit showed nepotism and conflicts of interest in Hartville.
In Kirby, there was no policy about how town credit cards could be used.
And almost comically, in Fort Laramie, state auditors couldn’t look up town rules because the book of town ordinances had been stolen.
Wyoming can do better for its many small towns. Most do not have the resources that the state has, and their auditing should never have been cut to save state money.
Before 1992, there were a half dozen auditors who visited small towns and special districts every three or four years. That’s one service the state needs to reinstate.
The Wyoming cities with populations of more than 4,000 are required to have an audit by a certified public accountant each year.
It’s a good policy for them, and it’s a good policy for the smaller towns. It may be even more important for them with their tiny and sometimes nonexistent staffs.
We value the spirit and individuality of our legendary spots on the map. As a state we need to reverse the foolish staff reductions that left their citizens without safeguards on how the public money is used.