News

Audit finds problems

Whidbey Island Conservation District Manager Benye Weber resigned from her position April 1, leaving behind a state audit riddled with charges of inadequate financial controls and improper procedures.

While several related directly to her bookkeeping and business practices, the audit found the Board of Supervisors did not provide adequate oversight of the District’s financial business.

Weber also serves on the board of the Marine Resources Committee and is a Port of Coupeville commissioner.

She did not return numerous phone calls from the Whidbey News-Times over the past week asking for her comments on the situation.

A state audit covering Jan. 1, 2000, to Dec. 31, 2002, and released March 19, found six conditions significant enough to note in the report.

Those findings were:

l The District has inadequate controls and monitoring over cash management.

l Internal controls over expenditures are inadequate to enure the appropriate use of public funds.

l Controls and monitoring over payroll activities and reporting were inadequate.

l Controls over financial reporting were inadequate to ensure the timely filing of financial statements.

l Controls and monitoring over the District’s plant sale were inadequate.

l Loans paid to the District were not supported and created a conflict of interest between the District Manager and the District.

The audit found that Weber loaned and donated $15,539 of her own money to the District in order to meet District financial obligations.

The District was assessed numerous overdraft charges by its bank, established a $4,000 line of credit in order to meet short-term financial obligations and then did not make timely payments, incurring numerous overdraft and late fee assessments.

The audit report notes that because funds were needed to pay for account overdrafts and late payment fees, less money was available for use on conservation programs.

The Whidbey Island Conservation District is a subdivision of the state Conservation Commission, and provides land use education and support for local land owners. It is funded by the state and through grants. Weber also served as the grant writer for the local program.

The report found several checks approved by both Weber and then-treasurer Les Boon either did not display a payee in the payee line, or the payee was filled in after the check was authorized.

Boon did not return a phone message requesting comment, nor did current treasurer Leonard Engle or chairman Steve Hilborn.

Engle, Hilborn and vice-chairman Frank Mueller are elected officials, while auditor Fred Van Benschoten and Boon were appointed.

Payroll activity not proper

In looking at payroll activities, the audit found 10 areas of concern, such as employees not being paid on time, but instead being paid when funds were available, leave earned at a greater rate than defined by District policy, with one employment contract allowing unlimited accrual of vacation and sick leave, and handwritten changes made to the policy manual with no evidence those changes were authorized.

The annual fundraising plant sale sponsored by the District also had accounting problems, with no records of purchases or records allowing a reconciliation of the sale activity to ensure the District received all the funds it was due. There was also no record of the plants ordered versus those purchased or leftovers donated to local organizations.

“These weaknesses appear to be the result of a lack of understanding by the District manager of proper accounting and records management,” the report concluded.

Finally, the audit found Weber had loaned personal funds totalling $5,700 to the District from 2000 to 2002. The loans were not recorded in the District’s financial records, and there was no record of board approval.

The audit concluded that Weber loaned the money to the District to meet its financial obligations, and that the District was unable to meet those obligations due to a lack of timely submission of grant reimbursement, the lack of accurate financial information and the lack of monitoring by the Board.

Weber’s loans caused the District to be in violation of state law, which prohibits District officers from being beneficially interested in agreements entered into under their supervision.

Districts now makes corrections

Van Benschoten, sifting through piles of papers in the District’s tiny Coupeville office Wednesday, said conditions have improved at the District since the audit, and they are working to correct all the deficiencies noted. He was appointed auditor after the audit was started, and said they had started corrective measures before the audit was completed.

“The audit fairly well says what was going on,” he said. “Any actions will come out of (District) meetings.”

In a written response included in the audit, the Board of Supervisors wrote: “While we regret the need for corrective action, we are committed to addressing the concerns of the Auditor and improving the District’s ability to handle public funds while protecting our natural resources and providing exemplary service to our community.”

While Weber is named specifically in the audit, Van Benschoten said the deficiencies were not all her fault.

“The board did not do the job of supervising right,” he said. “Things got out of whack.”

There are no penalties attached to the findings, just recommendations on what needs to be done to correct them.

Van Benschoten said the district, with annual expenses over $100,000, is not in financial danger.

“We’re not rich, but we’re not broke,” he said.

The District has interviewed 17 candidates from as far away as Utah and California, as well as a few local applicants, for the vacant Director’s position, which pays $38,000 per year. It expects to announce the new director at the April 22 public meeting.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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