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Auditor selection under scrutiny

Half the officials who ranked outside auditors skipped the questions that might have have favored new ones. The contract is worth up to $366,500.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 23, 2002


INVERNESS -- The results, it seems, didn't add up.

Four firms were in the running to be Citrus County's external auditor.

Six county officials sat down in May to rank the firms. They used a 100-point worksheet that was supposed to give extra points to new auditors who would bring a fresh set of eyes to the county's books.

In the end, however, the county's auditor for the past 15 years, Williams, McCranie & Sutton, landed at the top of the list.

Because they felt that the local auditor has done a good job, three officials decided it would be unfair to give preference to the other firms simply because they had not worked for the county before.

So those officials -- Elections Supervisor Susan Gill, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and a representative for Tax Collector Janice Warren -- skipped the two 5-point questions that would have tipped the rankings in favor of the new firms.

"I do not agree with penalizing the local firm for having the previous audit contract," Gill wrote in a memo to the selection committee. "The point system immediately places the existing firm 10 points behind the competition solely because they have done business with the county."

"The financial community is very divided over whether it is better to have someone who is familiar with the books and can catch something out of the ordinary real quick versus having a set of new eyes," Warren said in an interview on Monday. "We chose to rank the applicants based on their qualities to perform the job."

But the move has raised eyebrows among other officials and local watchdogs, particularly now that the fall of Enron and other companies has exposed the dangers of auditors becoming too cozy with their clients.

"I definitely feel the process of selection was flawed in favor of the existing auditor," Crystal River resident Sumner Waite said. "We occasionally need fresh eyes."

"It's simply a continuation of the good ol' boy system," Homosassa activist Jim Bitter added.

County Commissioner Gary Bartell will raise the issue today, when the commission considers approving a three-year contract with Williams, McCranie & Sutton worth up to $366,500.

"I plan to pull it (from the consent agenda) for discussion so we can clear the air about whether the proper procedures were followed," Bartell said.

When the county asked auditors to apply, it listed the point scale that would be used to rank the firms.

The criteria included the firm's experience in other government audits, the quality of its personnel and the adequacy of its auditing plan for Citrus County. The posting also said additional points would be awarded to the firms that have not done recent work for the county.

Half of the committee -- commission Chairman Jim Fowler, chief deputy property appraiser Melanie Hensley and Clerk of Courts Betty Strifler -- filled out the entire score sheet, including the extra points for new firms. But the other three members did not.

How much did that affect the outcome? Depends on how you look at it.

Strifler's office performed a weighted calculation in which Williams, McCranie & Sutton remained the top-ranked firm. The calculation made up for the fact that three officials rated the firms on a 100-point scale and three others used a 90-point scale because they skipped two items.

"We did an analysis with the scores including those factors, and the rankings came out the same," said Sarah Koser, the clerk's finance director.

But if all six officials had filled out the entire form, the additional points would have pushed the Gainesville firm of Purvis, Gray & Co. into the top spot.

Hensley, for one, favored the idea of having a fresh set of eyes look over the property appraiser's books.

"I was also interested in the fact that the other companies had data-processing staffs," Hensley said. "I was hoping they would be able to give us reports or new ways for us to look at our finances. They might have a better way of doing things."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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