The county auditor position Hillsborough voters created in 2002 has become a colossal waste. What was supposed to be a money-saving operation that fine-tuned the county's huge bureaucracy has turned into an office with no direction and very little to show for its six-figure annual budget. County commissioners share much of the blame for turning the auditor loose on their own witch hunts. They should return to the voters with a referendum to remove the position from the county charter in 2010.
The auditor's post was the pet project of the late industrialist Ralph Hughes, a conservative activist who argued that the office could help the county attack wasteful spending. Voters approved a referendum in 2002 to add the position to the county charter, Hillsborough's guiding document for local rule. The idea was that a performance auditor could go further than boilerplate audits of the past in analyzing how well county services were delivered. Supporters said the position would pay for itself.
But as St. Petersburg Times staff writer Bill Varian reported recently, far more performance audits were done in Hillsborough County government before the position was created. Seven were commissioned in 1995 alone, while the current auditor, Jim Barnes, and his predecessor have completed only three since the office started operating six years ago. The office has grown from a one-person operation to a staff of four with an annual budget of $500,000. There is no evidence that audits completed so far have saved the county money. And the auditors, who work at the pleasure of the commission, have had their time taken up by individual commissioners who have directed them to target a range of political grievances, from spending on public transit to environmental protections.
Barnes has made mistakes — pushing a pay increase for himself and taking a taxpayer-funded training trip to Las Vegas — that reflect a tin ear to the political position he holds. But the big problem is the office lacks direction. Commissioners cannot focus on the big picture so they blame the auditor for not doing so, either. The position is also ready-made for conflict. By doubling as the commission's budget analyst, the auditor is staged to undermine the county administrator, who proposes the county budget, and the senior staff she appoints to manage county agencies.
We opposed the creation of an auditor on the grounds it posed conflicts, added a needless layer of bureaucracy and gave commissioners an out from performing their oversight roles. After six years, the track record cannot justify pouring more money, time and attention toward a promise gone awry. The commission should put a ballot question before voters to repeal the auditor and redirect that money to cash-starved services.