Fifty-two hundred screw-ups with public money represents a step in the right direction for Stanislaus County, auditors and county leaders agreed Tuesday.
Auditors uncovered employees staying at luxury hotels and buying plane tickets for family members and watches purchased for sheriff's deputies, all with taxpayer money and in violation of county spending policy, according to a report.
Also detected: valet parking, failing to show up for booked hotel rooms and neglecting to request tax waivers from hotels, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
And county employees fouled up calculations when collecting development fees from Patterson, causing the county to lose up to $264,850.
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As bad as that may sound, waste in county government used to be much worse, officials said at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
"County departments have made significant improvements as compared to prior periods," Lauren Klein, internal audit manager, told supervisors.
For example, her office detected 32 "inappropriate purchases" among selected departments, sometimes using county money for personal items, from 2003-05, costing taxpayers $3,067. That number dropped to 18 violations worth $947 in the next two years and two violations costing $486 last year.
"No major findings. A few minor things," concluded board Chairman Jim DeMartini, noting that the county's 4,000 workers spend nearly $1 billion a year. "When you're running an organization this size, you're never going to have everything perfect."
Klein's audits over the past six months found:
Sheriff's employees failing to sleep eight times in booked hotel rooms
Behavioral Health and Recovery Services employees failing 17 times to request hotel tax waivers. Probation officers committed the same sin 13 times.
A district attorney's office employee buying a second ticket after missing a flight. Another used a county charge card to fuel a personal car instead of requesting mileage reimbursement.
Valet parking no-no's were committed by the district attorney's office, Sheriff's Department, Health Services Agency, Local Agency Formation Commission and public works.
Staying in four-star hotels -- the county's policy allows three stars -- were employees in public works, probation and the Community Services Agency.
Some workers paid back some or all of what they wrongly used, according to Klein's report. For example, a 911 dispatcher repaid a traveling companion's expenses.
Hundreds of violations cited in the report stemmed from legitimate expenses but lacked proper documentation or approval. For example, Sheriff Adam Christianson should have obtained permission from county supervisors before buying fuel for the use of a private airplane ride to a conference, which otherwise was free. And his employees should have followed procedure by getting approval before buying six meals outside the United States, Klein said in an interview.
Thousands more violations appear to be the result of sloppy paperwork, some missing odometer readings, others failing to cite a business purpose.
"It doesn't mean it isn't a legitimate expense, but they didn't follow the proper protocol," Auditor-Controller Larry Haugh said in an interview.
Twenty-five sheriff's employees kept taxpayer-funded watches presented during employee recognitions because the violation was an oversight and wasn't detected for some time, Klein said.
Leaders began closely watching travel expenses and use of county credit cards after The Bee reported questionable use of taxpayer money in 2003.
Former county Chief Executive Officer Reagan Wilson used public money for a massage and pedicure during a $650-a-night stay with a companion in a New York hotel. He spent $230,000 in six years, riding in limousines, buying flowers and going through carwashes.
Tightened policy and constant reminders in monthly department head meetings have encouraged a new culture of frugality, county Chief Executive Rick Robinson said after Tuesday's meeting. He acknowledged that continued lapses, however, cause embarrassment.
"We had a fairly steep learning curve in the early stages," Robinson told supervisors. "As we identified shortcomings, our overall results improved significantly."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.