In his first eight months in office, Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw already has released 23 reports on the state of the county’s finances and on the various departments and divisions within county government.
That’s a prodigious output considering that in 2012 and 2011 combined, a total of 16 audits and reviews were released by the Comptroller’s Office under Mychajliw’s immediate predecessors, David Shenk and current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who had a reputation while comptroller for being quite aggressive in holding county department heads accountable.
The administration, however, dismisses Mychajliw’s many reports as political “press releases,” while the county control board prefers to do its own analyses.
Mychajliw said he takes “a private-sector mentality toward cleaning up county government” in his professed zeal to root out inefficiency, waste and abuse. Seeking to lead by example, Mychajliw noted that one of his first reports was an audit of his own department, including a review of its accounting and fiscal division and a report detailing the corrective actions taken.
“The people hired me to be their fiscal watchdog, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” said Mychajliw, who last November defeated Shenk in a runoff to fill the remaining year of Poloncarz’s unexpired term after Poloncarz ascended to county executive.
“I’m really proud of our audit staff. They’re working harder than ever before. That’s because they now have a specific road map of what work has to be done and when it needs to be done,” he added.
Mychajliw also noted that he has hired the first certified public accountant since 2006 to serve as deputy comptroller.
An endorsed Republican and Conservative, Mychajliw is seeking re-election to a full four-year term as comptroller in the Nov. 5 general election. According to his critics in county government, the election calendar is the true motivation behind the flurry of reviews and audits emanating from Mychajliw’s office.
Mark Cornell, a Poloncarz spokesman, characterized many of the reports as press releases lacking substance.
“Only seven documents of the, like, 23 could be considered an audit or review, and of those, the vast majority are deeply flawed in some way. The rest are just spreadsheets or letters or press releases,” Cornell said.
The documents for 2013 can be accessed on the county comptroller’s web page under “audits and reviews.”
The web page lists 17 reviews and three audits, the most publicized of which was an audit of the eligibility and recertification process for county residents seeking Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits through the Department of Social Services. Acting on tips that auditors said they received from workers in the department, the audit was intended to be an investigation into whether those receiving benefits were being rubber-stamped for recertification.
Over the course of that investigation, auditors said they also were alerted by workers that copies of personal documents submitted by county residents seeking benefits – such as birth certificates, medical records and tax returns – were being improperly stored in unsecured totes.
However, the administration argued that the records breech was identified and corrected by the administration well before Mychajliw went public with his audit, and they accused Deputy Comptroller Teresa M. Fraas of using deception to gain access to a tote that was already in a secure location when it was seized.
The administration was equally critical of the comptroller’s most recent audit of the Department of Central Police Services and its use of a federal grant to fund overtime for DNA analysis in the department’s forensic laboratory. The report criticized the department’s use of manual time sheets instead of the county’s automated time recording system. The result, the report said, is that auditors were unable to validate that overtime expenses charged to the grant were being recorded to the proper payroll period.
The administration countered that the Comptroller’s Office “failed to demonstrate any issues or deficiencies in the procedures and handling of the grant.”
Some of his critics have accused Mychajliw of leaking his reports to the media before the subjects of his audits and reviews have had a chance to read and respond to them.
Dennis Ward, Democratic commissioner of the Board of Elections, said he was blindsided when a six-month review of the Board of Elections budget for 2013 was released Aug. 8.
“I’d be happy to respond to it when the comptroller is courteous enough to give us a copy of the report,” Ward said on the day the report was released.
Mychajliw said a copy of the review was delivered to the Board of Elections a day before he released it to the public.
The report alleged that fluctuations in personnel spending by the board’s Democrats resulted in nine workers being laid off earlier this year and that those layoffs resulted in the payment of nearly $9,000 in unemployment benefits before most of the laid-off workers were put back on the county payroll.
Cornell countered that Mychajliw’s assumptions were “completely wrong” and had nothing to do with why those workers were laid off. Both he and Ward said the County Legislature cut the Board of Elections’ budget by 15 percent last year, which is what led to the initial reductions in personnel.
“Unfortunately, it seems the comptroller is more interested in quantity than quality by substituting letters and press releases in place of comprehensive reviews of county government. I know he’s a PR guy, but press releases are not government reviews,” Cornell said, referring to Mychajliw’s past work as a spokesman for area school districts and for former County Executive Chris Collins.
Asked for his evaluation of the audits coming from Mychajliw’s office, county control board Chairman James Sampson said the reports do not generally fall within the purview of what the control board monitors. He also said the comptroller’s reports don’t influence the control board’s discussions or decisions.
“We have a staff, and we do our own reviews,” said Sampson, who leads the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority.
Meanwhile, Mychajliw promises that more reviews and audits are coming. The Comptroller’s Office is in the midst of auditing inmate health care, including the cost of prescription drugs for those incarcerated in the county’s jails. Mychajliw said the audit will be complete by the end of the year.
Also in the works are audits of residences operated by the Departments of Parks, Recreation and Forestry, and an audit of the maintenance and inspections of elevators in county-owned buildings.
“We’re doing strong work, and the facts speak for themselves. County government is operating more efficiently because of the work we’re doing in the Comptroller’s Office,” Mychajliw said.