Public works accountants in Franklin County to move offices to courthouse

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 4, 2012 

Franklin County accountants in the public works department will move into the auditor's office at the courthouse in the latest effort to deal with the aftermath of a former employee's alleged embezzlement of about $2.8 million.

County commissioners agreed in a 2-0 vote Wednesday to move the employees effective Nov. 1.

Commissioner Bob Koch abstained from voting, saying the head of the human re-sources and public works de-partments expressed concern that they had yet to see all details of the proposal, including pay grade information.

County Auditor Matt Beaton said the decision to move the accountants is the result of the state auditor's fraud investigation.

That investigation was triggered by the discovery that Dennis Huston, the county's former public works accounting and administrative director, allegedly stole county money by submitting false vouchers for a Spokane company that closed in 2001.

The state auditor advised the county to use qualified supervisors in the accounting field to oversee all billing and spending, Beaton said.

The move, combined with new accounting software, will help increase internal controls, he said.

"It's really a complete reworking with a new direction," Beaton said.

There will be no change in the number of accounting positions. All seven accountants will be in the auditor's office, rather than having three in the public works building.

Commission Chairman Brad Peck said the move will add a missing verification piece.

"Trust has been an element of our past accounting practices more than it should have been," he said.

Thomas Westerman, the county's chief accountant, said the public works department will pay the auditor's office $67,569, which includes $23,000 for the equipment and furniture needed to move the accounting employees and their salaries for the rest of this year.

Beaton said the cost to public works is the same as what they were spending on the three positions, though Huston's job is vacant. He was fired earlier this year and is awaiting trial on criminal charges.

During the public comment period, Felix Vargas, a citizen, told commissioners he would like to know what actions they themselves are taking to get more directly involved in the oversight of the budget and spending.

"It's also a leadership issue," he said.

Koch said individual elected officials are doing more within their own departments to increase controls.

"I think we are going forward the best we can at this point," he said.

Peck said he does not anticipate any other significant organizational changes.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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