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State audit finds spending, job-filling problems

A state audit of Oregon’s budgeting practices has found three main flaws: State agencies often hire two or more employees for one budgeted position, they ramp up their discretionary spending at the end of the budget cycle and the state’s so-called transparency web site is opaque, hard-to-use and incomplete.

Officials in the state’s lead budgetary agency, the Department of Administrative Services, largely acknowledged the problems called out in the audit, released Wednesday by the Secretary of State’s Audit Division. But they said fixes to the transparency web site and double-employee issue are already underway and they said their checks on end-of-budget spending surges didn’t turn up unwise or inappropriate use of public dollars.

In general, Oregon agencies are only supposed to hire as many employees as the Legislature authorizes. But state policy allows them to temporarily place multiple people into one budgeted position to address workload or training needs.

Government insiders refer to those situations as “double-fills.” But auditors found agencies sometimes put many more than two employees in a single authorized position. The Department of Human Services is by far the biggest offender, they found, and once used a single authorized position for an operation and policy analyst to hire 24 of them.

When auditors checked in January, they found almost 1,900 double-filled positions, representing about 5 percent of the state’s authorized work force.

Agencies should have to report how often, to what extent and why they hire more than one person to fill one authorized position, auditors wrote. And administrative services agency leaders said they are acquiring new HR software that will allow them to track every instance in which an employee is put in a non-budgeted position. They promised to track and share that information by the first half of 2020.

Administrative services agency leaders also say they have made plans to improve the look, functionality and content of the budget transparency web site. But they say that won’t be complete until June 2022 and, in some respects, January 2023. Auditors urged them to make incremental improvements to the site, at a minimum, much more quickly.

Oregonians can use the website to look up information such as how much the state pays specific contractors, without spending the time and money potentially required to get that information via a public records request.

In the meantime, auditors wrote, the web site is pretty terrible, as reflected in part by users’ reactions. In 2017 and 2018, they wrote, 82 percent of users who came to the site left without ever visiting a second page, suggesting they aren’t seeing useful information and can’t find what they are looking for. Those who do stick around the transparency website don’t do so for long – an average of 37 seconds in 2018. Across all state web sites, by contrast, first-time visitors spent an average of more than 2 1/2 minutes in 2015, auditors said.

Other states’ budgetary transparency websites are better looking, easier to understand, more complete and all-around superior, auditors found.

Auditors expressed concern about end-of-budget-cycle spending, noting that government accountability experts have found that the rush of spending at budgets’ ends tends to be low-quality or spend on low-priority items. In Oregon, they found, agencies ramped up spending on office supplies, medical supplies, travel, equipment rental, printing and other discretionary spending.

“Agency staff and DAS management told us that spending more near the end of a biennium is a sign of good budgeting,” auditors wrote. “However, this heightened spending increases risks for the state and complicates oversight and transparency.” The state’s chief information officer and employees in her office reported, for instance, that they got a rush of requests to buy IT software and hardware at the end of budget cycles and didn’t have enough bandwidth to properly vet all those demands, auditors wrote.

State budget officials said that, after auditors called the end-of-budget spending to their attention, they ran spot checks to see if there was problematic spending. Employees in the chief financial office checked and were “pleased to find that these end-of-biennium spending instances were appropriate,” Department of Administrative Services Director Katy Coba wrote. But auditors said many details of that review were “nebulous.”

Coba was Gov. Kate Brown’s choice to run the agency, which she has headed since August 2016. Auditors ultimately answer to Secretary of State Bev Clarno, Republican appointee to serve out the term of the late Dennis Richardson.

A new electronic procurement system that will be in place for

2021-22 will make it easier for analysts in her office to see more details on what agencies buy at the end of the budgetary period, Coba also wrote.

A view of the Oregon Capitol in Salem. AP PHOTO.