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Treasurer stand by her ways

Island County Treasurer Maxine Sauter examines some of her paper work on Friday. She maintains her way of doing things is better for this county than changes recommended by the state Auditor’s Office. - Jim Larsen
Island County Treasurer Maxine Sauter examines some of her paper work on Friday. She maintains her way of doing things is better for this county than changes recommended by the state Auditor’s Office.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

Maxine Sauter will continue doing things her own way, thank you. Even if her critic happens to represent the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

Island County’s elected treasurer of 15-years was criticized in the state’s audit report released Dec. 28. But that’s nothing new. Sauter is almost always criticized in the annual audit for how she handles certain operations in her department.

The state worries that there are not enough controls to assure that public funds won’t be misappropriated. After listing alleged weaknesses, the audit report states, “Many of these weaknesses have been reported as audit findings or in management letters during six of the last eight Island County audits.”

As always, Sauter responds that, in essence, the big city auditors don’t understand how things are done in little Island County. After all, the state audit does not claim that any money ever disappeared.

“We have never had a missing penny in the 15 years I’ve been here,” said Sauter, who was first elected in 1986 after having been appointed to the position. “I don’t know what else they want ... we have the best money control system in the state.”

Sauter expresses total confidence in the abilities and trustworthiness of her seven deputy auditors. Their work isn’t organized the way the state would like, because they are “cross trained” to share some duties. The state would like things more “segregated,” so no one person has too much control of funds.

Sauter scoffs at that notion, saying that the state even wants two people to carry the cash receipts across Main Street in Coupeville to Whidbey Island Bank.

“If we were not cross trained, we’d have to hire two more people,” Sauter said. She’s not complaining about her staffing, even though she has one less deputy than she started with 15 years ago. She says they can handle the work load thanks to how they are trained to share duties.

Nestor Newman, audit manager at the state’s Lynnwood office, expresses frustration with Sauter’s attitude, although he finds her a likeable person. “Maxine has her opinion and we have our opinion, and unfortunately they don’t meet,” Newman said Thursday.

Newman said the state isn’t asking the cash-strapped county government to give Sauter’s department more money. “No way can they put in more people -- they don’t have the dough,” he said. “But they can reassign staff to segregate duties. We want to work with Maxine.”

Newman expressed hope that he and his staff can meet with Sauter and “try to persuade her” to change her system. “It’s how things are organized; the process, how they do things there,” he said, summarizing the problem as he sees it.

Sauter said she’s willing to meet, but she doesn’t expect to suddenly accept the state’s ideas. “I’m not going to see his light, I’m hoping he’ll see our light,” she said, emphasizing that she has the authority to run her department as she sees fit.

According to Sauter, her system works best for small counties such as Island, as several people check each transaction. “Our controls are stronger than theirs,” she maintains. “We have controls, they have to follow the procedures.”

Sauter believes the state simply wants all counties to operate the same. “The state says everyone should be the same, it doesn’t matter what size you are,” she said. “I can’t change what I feel is the way to go.”

The Island County Board of Commissioners have been observing the dispute with interest, even though Sauter is a separately elected official. Mike Shelton, chairman of the board, said Friday that Sauter should comply with the state auditor’s suggestions.

“The state auditor has historically looked at the way we do business and suggested changes,” Shelton said. “Those changes have always been made, and rightfully so.”

Shelton said “county finances are not necessarily in danger, but she (Sauter) should comply with the recommendations the state auditor makes to Island County.”

Nestor said that barring any finding of fraud, which hasn’t happened, his office can do little more than continue to issue its “findings” of concern about the Island County Treasurer’s Office.

If Sauter refuses to change, Nestor said the state will likely do even more auditing of Island County, and “we’ll continue to hit those areas (of concern) hard,” such as how cash and receipts are handled.

Island County could find more auditing financially painful, however. The state bills the county for the auditing at the rate of $71.10 per hour.

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