Three Proposals That Assure Independent Oversight by Elected County Comptrollers

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

Proposed budgets in 2016 two upstate counties, Ulster and Onondaga, delivered bad news to comptrollers, county elected officials charged with fiscal oversight.  In Ulster, County Executive Michael Hein sought a 22% cut (from $890,000 to $695,000) in Comptroller Elliot Auerbach’s budget. Meanwhile, in Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney took $479,000 (27%) out of Comptroller’s Bob Antonacci’s budget. Were these decisions political payback that reveal a need for structural changes in county government, or simply tough-minded management?

In the thirty-four New York of fifty-seven upstate counties that have not adopted a home rule charter – the path by which, under NY’s constitution and laws, a county can define its own governmental structure – state law makes elected Treasurers the chief financial officers (CFOs). In these jurisdictions county auditors are appointed officials who do the routine pre- and post-audit work to assure that actual expenditures are in accord with the budget.

The twenty-three counties that have adopted a charter may retain these arrangements, or opt for alternative assignment of a county’s fiscal and auditing function.  One approach, used in eight counties, including Ulster and Onondaga counties, and modeled in part by the powerful offices in state and New York City government, is to create an elected comptroller. The idea is to have an official independent of the executive, with no direct service delivery responsibilities, who is accountable directly to the people, and whose sole job is to provide oversight of governmental operations.

In Albany, Erie, and Suffolk counties, elected comptrollers have the powers of both auditor and chief financial officer. Others perform only the audit function, with the fiscal responsibilities generally located with a Commissioner of Finance appointed by the county executive with the advice and consent of the county legislature (or board).

The work of county comptrollers reflects the redefinition of the audit function in contemporary government.  Modern program audits are concerned not only with whether expenditures are in accord with budget, but also with whether taxpayers are getting good value for their money. The Ulster County charter empowers the comptroller to “… audit any department, program or function of County government to assess the degree to which its operation is economical, efficient and/or effective.” The Dutchess County Comptroller describes the job, in part, as acting in collaboration with the executive and legislature to “protect taxpayer interests.”  In Albany, Erie and Suffolk counties, the comptroller’s office maintains a hotline to receive citizen allegations of fraud.

Tensions naturally arise between the county executive and the comptroller because it is the comptroller’s job to look critically over the county executive’s shoulder and assess the day-to-day performance of county government. In Ulster and Onondaga, at least on the surface, the issue isn’t partisanship. Both Hein and Auerbach are Democrats. Both Mahoney and Antonacci are Republicans.

In the always potentially fraught relationship with comptrollers, county executives have the upper hand: their budget making and management roles are one major source of power. Another is their control of the flow of information within county government. These advantages are amplified when comptrollers lack sufficient capacity to defend themselves.

It is noteworthy that the two most visible disputes this year between county executives and comptrollers are in counties in which the comptrollers are auditors but not chief financial officers. Greater power given to the comptroller in the county charter elevates the risk for an executive inclined to use his or her considerable powers to diminish the resources or capacity of the comptroller’s office.

Nevertheless, that both county executive and comptrollers work collaboratively and discretely behind the scenes is likely to be the most productive approach. It allows both elected officials to be winners with the public from governmental improvements found, implemented, and then publicized together. Dutchess County under County Executive Mark Molinaro appears to provide a model worthy of emulation.

When things turn sour, however, the comptroller may turn for support to the county legislature, which shares formal responsibility for oversight of the executive.  In his introduction to his departmental budget in 2017, Albany county Comptroller Michael Conners made a point of noting that “Audit and Control appreciates the support it has received from the County Legislature for projects throughout the year.”

Again, political or personal differences may get in the way. The legislative majority may be of a different party, may itself feel under attack (as in Onondaga this year) or may find preserving a strong relationship with the executive more appealing than supporting the Comptroller.

County comptrollers spend a very small share of county budgets and their work often leads to savings that pay in part for their work.  Suffolk Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. claimed financial recoveries for the county totaling $2.5 million in 2016 (with the year not yet over). One way to assure the intended independence of the county comptroller’s office in all political circumstances is to find a way to shelter these relatively small budgets from executive and/or legislative cuts.  Here are three ideas:

  1. A county charter may require the executive to convey the comptroller’s budget to the legislature unaltered. It could additionally bar the county legislature from cutting the comptroller’s budget beyond the percentage cut it makes to the county budget as a whole, or to its own budget, or to the executive’s office budget. Additionally, the charter might provide that the executive not be empowered to veto items within the comptroller’s budget.
  2. The county charter might provide that the comptroller’s department budget and staffing not be reduced beneath its level on some specified base year or period, adjusted for inflation, with mandatory increases for personnel costs commensurate with increases for these purposes provided for other county departments.
  3. Another approach is to link the size of the comptroller’s budget to that of the county finance office, which directly serves the executive. The model here is the Independent Budget Office (IBO) in New York City.

The Onondaga County legislature fully restored its county comptroller’s budget. In Ulster the final cut was less than half what the executive proposed. This difference is probably linked to the strength of each of these comptrollers’ relationship with his county legislature. But the bottom line is that citizens in New York counties with comptrollers have clearly said in their charters that they want an independent official responsible directly to them to exercise additional oversight of county government. To do this job right, those being overseen cannot have the power to deny these comptrollers reasonable resources to do their jobs.

 

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Thanks to Jaclyn Greco, Undergraduate Cetrino Family Scholar at the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, for research assistance in support of this essay.


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