State auditor speaks at 4C meeting – explains duties, offers suggestions for savings to taxpayers


By Sue Forde
Citizen Review Online

March 28, 2011

Sequim, WA - A sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, State Auditor Brian Sonntag spoke to approximately 150 citizens at the monthly FourC [Concerned Citizens of Clallam County] meeting held on Monday, March 28, 2011 at the Sequim Boys and Girls Club.

After reviewing his 20+ years in office (he was first elected in 1992), he commented that his department is responsible for the “checks and balances on government accountability”, hired “by the people” to “hold government accountable to the people they service.”  He said there are approximately 2,700 units of government they are responsible for auditing.  In the 2009-2010 audit, Sonntag stated that was a $1 billion decrease in tax revenues, while at the same time, a $7 billion unemployment tab, and $13 billion for disability payments. 

Brian SonntagSonntag said that as of June 2010, there was a shortfall of $600 million in the general fund; by March 1, 2011, that figure had increased to $1.7 billion that Washington State is short to pay its bills.

There was a performance audit issued this month by the Auditor’s office, the Auditor stated, that reported a way to save $180 million by utilizing a different method of investing healthcare for teachers and employees.  Consolidation would save about $90 billion a year, he said.

Sonntagg said the State should not be in the business of selling liquor, to which he received considerable applause from the audience.  “By selling the assets and franchising, the State would save about $277 million,” he said.

Along the way, the Auditor’s office has discovered ways of saving taxpayers’ money by doing performance audits, which only recently has been passed through an initiative, and finally funded in order to perform them.  Sonntag shared a couple of examples where these types of audits have offered ways to save money.  The first was when the Auditor’s department made suggestions in the general administration motor pool department to save $2 million.  The second example was about approximately $643 million of outstanding funds owed to various agencies that was “uncollected debt”.  Sonntag suggested the agencies “write a letter” to the debtor telling them they owed money.  “That worked well,” he said, and money poured in.  Then they recommended making a phone call to the debtors – and that brought in even more of the outstanding money owed.  “It’s so stupid to me” to not do those simple things to save money, he stated.

Another recommendation concerned the ferry system.  Sonntag said the employment contracts needed to be “tightened up” – and ferries should not run “empty” or with only one or two people aboard.

He moved on to talk about the overpayments being made in social services – some $8 million could be saved there by verifying recipients of Medicaid and social services funding.  He also said that Employment Security was not adequately verifying the individuals who are receiving benefits from that department.

The State is now employing a “whistleblower” program that is working well, Sonntag said.  So often, an employee can spot waste and fraud much more easily than someone outside a department, and often people report anonymously.

Turning to the transportation programs, he pointed out Highway 18 as an example of a construction project that has been “going on since I got my driver’s license.”  A five-year project to wide 3.5 miles started out with a contract of $54.5 million.  The final price tag was $99.5 million.  Some 156 change orders occurred along the way.  “What kind of mindset is this?” he queried.  He said to compare that to a project at a private home – it would like having the same contractor keep coming back to do add-on work 156 times.  What’s the definition of insanity? he said – “doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.”  It’s costing $28 million per mile – and the highway is still not finished!

He cited an example in Clallam County where the auditors were called in to look at a $1,200 misappropriation of funds, and which ended up at somewhere over $600,000.  We look for “good management and transparency”, and Clallam County did not have that, he said.  “It’s not our money; it’s yours!”  He said that public employees are supposed to hold a “public trust” – once broken, it’s very hard to repair.  “People want an open, honest and accountable government,” he said.

He cited an example of arrogance in government – the State Wine Commission was questioned about $7,500 in expenses for a commissioner’s going away party, where the major expense was… “wine”.  That’s your money, he reiterated.

He shared a story about a Port Administrator from Grays Harbor who attended a national conference in New Orleans, taxpayer-paid.  “It’s not illegal for them to go,” Sonntag said.  This particular fellow was having a “fun time at an establishment where some of the employees don’t wear clothes.  He started buying alcohol and entertainment with a State credit card…it speaks to attitude, and forgetting whose money it is!”

Sonntag quoted President Kennedy that public service is “a noble profession and a high calling.” 

He addressed the budget cuts, stating that the Auditor’s department’s budget was initially cut by 33%, then another 22% last year, and there is yet another $10 million to be cut from their budget.  “If our budget is reduced, we won’t be able to audit as much,” he said.  He commented that he’s not seeing programs or departments eliminated, that there’s much talk about “no sacred cows”, but it’s only been talk so far.

“Government needs to change the size of its footprint,” Sonntag asserted.  The State government has to do less; they should start clean and justify their existence,” referring to various agencies and departments.  “The State Constitution is our first priority, and identifies the State’s core functions,” he added.  “If government would reach out to citizens and ask, ‘what do you want’, not ‘what government ‘thinks’ we need,” we would be better off.

Sonntag then took questions from the audience.  Bob Forde asked if the State Department of Ecology had been audited.  Sonntag responded that some aspects are different for financial audits.  “We have not been able to review their policies,” he said.  “I’m not for regulations.”

One citizen asked what can be done to get “teeth” behind the audits.  Sonntag replied that the department is not in the “policy-making realm”.  It should be a public process – why or why not are they going to do the performance audit recommendations.

Mark Marinaro asked would could be done about the “prevailing wage law” how much would be saved if we got rid of that?  Sonntag said that “no one size fits all situations.”

Another person asked how government gets away with loose budgets.  Sonntag said that the auditors look for the “tone at the top” – if accountability is “built in”, they are probably okay.  The various government entities use “budget assumptions”, he said, counting on revenues they may never receive.  “How can you anticipate what you don’t have?”

Question:  Are the Auditor’s findings available to the public.  Sonntag replied emphatically, “Yes”.  They can be found at  He said he serves on the board for the “Washington Coalition for Open Government”, and everything they do is open to the public, right on their website.

Marinaro raised another question about the ferry system.  “The ferries are really old,” said Sonntag.  “The Coast Guard has never approved the current ones as being safe.”

Question: Can a private citizen request an audit of county government.  Yes, the Auditor replied.

A question was raised about the Hood Canal bridge where the company working on it was given a “bonus” for early completion.  Since then, they have continued working on it, due to lots of “change orders”.  Sonntag responded that a better way to do business is: “Here’s the incentive – you complete the contract, and you get paid.”  No incentive should be offered to come in under budget, on time.  “It never happens that way,” he said.

He encouraged citizens to “make your voice heard; they have to know you’re around,” referring to “public servants”. He stressed that by attending meetings and speaking out, the elected officials will know they are being watched.