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Workers' comp issue shows need for audits

The recent release of an audit that criticizes the Hernando County Commission's workers' compensation program is another example of how errors of omission often are as much to blame as errors of commission when it comes to government inefficiency.

The end result in either circumstance, of course, is that taxpayers' money is still being squandered, which makes the cause of the waste of less concern than the consequence. That said, it still can be useful to determine what went wrong so as not to repeat the mistakes.

According to this audit, the Human Resources and Purchasing departments shared responsibility for failing to adequately scrutinize the contract with the outside workers' comp administrator, Johns Eastern Co. Because the private company has served in that capacity since 1985, renewal of the contract was more or less taken for granted.

Former human resources director Barbara Dupre, who was forced out of her job earlier this year for other issues, told the Times that when she took over the workers' comp contract about eight years ago it had not been rebid in some time because she was told it was exempt and also because nothing significant had changed.

But the recent audit said the contract should have been subject to a competitive bidding process, which ensures taxpayers buy the best service at the best price. Not rebidding the contract every time it came up for renewal is a violation of County Commission policy, the auditor said, adding that the commission also should have approved publicly each renewed contract. Either Dupre, her predecessors, the Purchasing Department director or one of the seven county administrators since 1985 should have questioned that slack practice before now.

Also, the auditor noted, the public's money may have been wasted by the county pre-purchasing a set number of claim cases, a practice called "bundling units," instead of just handling them individually on a pay-as-you-go plan. The unit price was the same either way, the auditor said, so the decision to "bundle" the fee is inexplicable.

In addition to the violations of policy, the audit turned up lesser oversights and discrepancies, most of which have been easily explained or corrected.

Audits are useful tools for ferreting out waste, improving efficiency and ensuring accountability; that is an essential responsibility of government and one that Peggy Prentice, the Clerk of the Circuit Court auditor who did this one, is fulfilling. Prentice also uncovered problems with the Human Resources Department earlier this year, administrative problems at the Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District last year, and more recently she substantiated evidence of wrongdoing in the Emergency Management Office, to name a few. It is a tedious, powerful and mostly thankless job, but one that is proving to be well worth the cost of the position.

The problems with the workers' comp contract seem to have been rooted in an unthinking attitude of "that's how we've always done it." In this time of reduced government revenue and a recessionary economy, that mind-set no longer can be indulged. Every expenditure must be questioned because continued waste likely will cost people their jobs, in and out of government. If our public servants wish to maintain their credibility and accomplish their core mission to protect and serve, excess simply cannot be tolerated.

Workers' comp issue shows need for audits 06/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 7:34pm]
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