Tag Archives: comptroller

Legislature raises fees for county audits, sets up historic preservation funds

Legislation raising fees that counties pay for audits by the comptroller’s office and diverting new revenue from the state’s real estate transfer tax to historic preservation funds has won almost unanimous approval by the Legislature.

State law requires annual audits of county governments and In 89 of the state’s 95 counties, the comptroller does the auditing. Under current law, those counties pay a fee based on population — 30 cents per resident.

Under SB2654, the fee will be increase to 36 cents per resident starting next year with the comptroller granted authority to raise the cost another 3 cents per resident in each of the following years. The Republican sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin, said the extra money is needed to cover increased costs — and if the future increases are not necessary, they won’t be implemented.

The Fiscal Review Committee estimated the cost to the counties would be about $230,000 next year. Six of the state’s most populous counties, including Knox, hired their own auditors and do not rely on the comptroller.

Another provision of the bill creates two new uses for money collected from the state’s real estate transfer tax —— purchase of Civil War sites and purchase of historic properties. The Fiscal Review staff estimates that the two funds will split about $1 million next year as a result of the bill’s enactment.

Currently, funds from the tax are earmarked for four other funds — one for wetlands acquisition, one for state park land acquisition, one for local park acquisition and the Agricultural Resources Conservation Fund. Under the bill, those accounts will be frozen at their current levels of annual funding and all growth money will go to the new funds.

The bill passed the Senate 31-1 and was approved 92-1 in the House. The no votes came from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.

DHS defends child nutrition program from comptroller critique

At a legislative hearing, the head of the Department of Human Services Tuesday defended the agency’s operation of a food service program that has faced scrutiny following the release of several audits.

From The Tennessean:

Justin P. Wilson, the state’s comptroller, began a meeting convened by the Senate Investigations and Oversight subcommittee and likened the Department of Human Services to someone struggling with alcoholism.

“You can’t really solve a problem until you acknowledge that the problem is really there,” Wilson said, after ending a nearly 40-minute presentation outlining a series of audits his office performed that revealed significant problems with the department’s handling of food programs that provide nutritious food to children at risk for hunger.

Wilson argued that Human Services was currently operating with a handful of controls providing oversight of its operations, which he said were akin to having a building having just a few smoke detectors. Wilson suggested the department needed an entire sprinkler system in order to move forward.

During her portion of the presentation, Commissioner Raquel Hatter pushed back against the allegations that the department didn’t believe there were problems.

“On some level, we have been misinterpreted or misunderstood,” she said, adding that Human Services has made improvements on a variety of its functions, including an increase in the number of meals provided in food service programs and bolstering accuracy and timeliness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

While facing questions from Sen. Bo Watson about the fact that the comptroller found issues with the department’s handling of the program dating back to 2011, Hatter told the panel that they have made improvements in recent years, while pointing out that the job requirement for the person handling the program has changed.

The panel also heard from Monica Jones, who is overseeing the food program, who vowed to work to correct the agency’s handling of the initiative.

The hearing was called in response to three critical audits released over a two-week span by the Tennessee comptroller late last month. One audit released March 29 questioned $11.4 million in spending by DHS, most of that on its food programs. It described multiple violations of federal regulations and basic accounting practices. These included a lack of documentation for monies spent on food, a lack of verification that the agencies DHS contracts with are eligible to participate in the food program and staffing shortages at DHS that threatened its ability to provide oversight and prevent potential fraud, waste and abuse.

Another audit criticizes DHS child nutrition program

For the third time this month, the state Comptroller’s Office has released an audit critical of a child nutrition programs overseen by the Department of Human Services, reports The Tennessean. In this one, $11.4 million in spending is questioned.

Most of the spending questioned in Tuesday’s audit involved food programs for low-income kids. The programs have been pored over by lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and have been the subject of an ongoing Tennessean investigation. Last week, the Comptroller issued two separate reports on private agencies now under criminal investigation for pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in food program funds that never made it to children.

The $80 million food program is intended to provide meals and snacks to kids who lack access to nutritious food in a Tennessee, where one in five children is at risk for hunger. The funds come from the federal government, but DHS is responsible for overseeing the programs. DHS contracts with private agencies, providing the money for food purchases distributed in child care centers, after-school and recreational programs.

Tuesday’s audit called into question more than 10 percent of the food program’s annual operating budget, based only on a review of a small sample of private agencies participating. The audit described multiple violations of federal regulations and basic accounting practices, including a lack of documentation for monies spent on food, a lack of verification that the agencies DHS contracts with are eligible to participate in the food programs and staffing shortages at DHS that threatened its ability to provide oversight and prevent potential fraud, waste and abuse.

In several examples cited in the audit, DHS provided cash advances for food purchases to agencies that never requested them. In one example, DHS provided a $311,993 cash advance to an agency whose entire annual operating budget was $124,000. In another example, an agency receiving an un-asked-for cash advance said it was waiting for DHS to ask for it back.

The audit places responsibility for the oversight failures on DHS management, including its commissioner, Raquel Hatter.

Hatter — through spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin on Tuesday — declined an interview request… Jarnagin sent a statement from DHS that said, in part: “It is important to note that while State Audit has questioned costs in their findings, it does not mean that the questioned costs are specifically the result of fraud, waste or abuse.”

Audits find misdeeds in two child nutrition operations

In separate audits released today, the state Comptroller’s office has found misdeeds afoot in two child nutrition programs — on in Nashville, the other in Clarksville.

The news releases are below, along with a statement from the Department of Human Services disagreeing with some of the auditors’ comments.
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TN Veterans Home employee charged with theft

News release from state comptroller’s office:
Former receptionist Marilyn Truss has been charged with theft after a Comptroller’s investigation revealed that she stole at least $7,906 from the Tennessee State Veterans’ Home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The investigation was conducted in conjunction with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Investigators found that Ms. Truss stole money that she collected from visitors and staff who pre-purchased meals from the Veterans’ Home cafeteria. Ms. Truss admitted to taking some of the money for her personal use, falsifying accounting records, and destroying receipts

Investigators identified Ms. Truss as a convicted felon on probation for a previous theft of property over $60,000 in Hamilton County. While working at the Veterans’ Home, she had an outstanding warrant for her arrest because she had violated the conditions of her probation. Management was unaware of her criminal history, and is now using a different vendor for background checks.

Comptroller investigators also noted $1,833 in questionable transactions related to residents’ trust accounts which Ms. Truss assisted in maintaining.

Additionally, investigators found that prescription drugs that should have come to the home were missing. Just prior to Ms. Truss’ resignation in August 2014, management found several opened and unopened mail pouches containing various prescription drugs located under her desk.

On March 9, 2016, Marilyn Truss was indicted by the Rutherford County Grand Jury on one count of theft under $10,000 and one count of making false entries in books or records.

“Many of the problems noted in this investigation could have been prevented with stronger accounting procedures and management oversight,” said Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “Our report also notes problems with the Veterans’ Home purchasing process. I am pleased to see that management has taken steps toward correcting these deficiencies.”

To view the investigation online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/ia/

Audit uncovers $21K theft in Jefferson County

News release from comptroller’s office
The Comptroller’s annual audit of Jefferson County government, released today, includes three findings, one of which describes a $21,752 theft from the Planning and Zoning Office.

Last month, former employee Rhonda Michelle Reece was indicted on one count of theft over $10,000, one count of theft over $1,000, and four counts of official misconduct.

Comptroller auditors were first alerted to this issue by officials from Jefferson County after a citizen received a past-due notice for his adequate facilities tax – a bill which the citizen could prove he had already paid.
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Committee votes to add open records jobs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Senate Finance Committee has voted to approve funding for two new positions in Tennessee government to help clear a backlog of open record questions.

A recent comptroller’s audit documented more than 600 open or pending cases where citizens or governments had made requests to the Office of Open Records Counsel, which helps people obtain government records.

The office was created in 2008, but its duties have been covered by another staffer in Wilson’s office after its full-time lawyer left in 2014.

Wilson has requested nearly $265,000 in the budget to help with the growing number of requests for information. He says that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has not yet committed to agreeing to the new spending.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the change on a voice vote Tuesday.

Comptroller reports on TN charter schools

News release from state comptroller’s office:
The Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) has released a report that examines the way charter school facilities are funded in Tennessee. The report provides information on the facilities arrangements for Tennessee’s charter schools and describes efforts in Tennessee and other states to provide charter schools with facilities-related assistance.

Charter schools are public schools operated by independent governing bodies and are authorized by one of the following three entities in Tennessee: local boards of education, the Achievement School District (ASD), or the State Board of Education (SBOE). The majority of charters in Tennessee are authorized by local boards of education. As of the 2015-16 school year, 97 public charter schools operate in Tennessee. These school are located in Hamilton County (3), Knox County (1), Metro Nashville (27), Shelby County (45), and the Achievement School District (21).

Charter schools authorized by school districts and the State Board of Education must secure their own facility arrangements. Once a charter school’s application is approved, it is the responsibility of the school operator to secure its own school facility; neither the local board of education nor the SBOE is required to provide a facility to the charter schools they authorize. ASD charter schools neither lease nor own their school facilities and are not responsible for securing a school facility. Almost all charter schools in the ASD are instead located in a school facility previously operated by a local school district and subsequently taken over by the ASD because of low academic performance.
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New report: Many high school grads not ready for college

News release from state comptroller’s office
The Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) has released a report on the college readiness of Tennessee students and efforts underway to reduce the need for and improve the effectiveness of postsecondary remediation.

Both nationally and in Tennessee, large numbers of students who graduate from high school are not adequately prepared or “ready” for postsecondary education. In 2014, based on an OREA analysis of available ACT scores, 75 percent of Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) community college freshmen, and 48 percent of TBR university freshmen, did not meet the TBR criteria for college readiness in math, reading, and/or writing. Approximately 28 percent of University of Tennessee freshmen did not meet the criteria set by their campuses for college readiness in math, reading, and/or writing in 2014.

Remediation, also known as developmental education or learning support, generally refers to academic requirements for students assessed as underprepared. Remediation is designed to address students’ weak reading, writing, and/or math skills so they are more academically successful in credit bearing entry-level college courses.

Several current K-12 initiatives focus on reducing the need for remediation by addressing students’ academic weaknesses prior to postsecondary education. Postsecondary reform initiatives are underway to increase the effectiveness of learning support.

Tennessee has shown progress in reducing the percentage of college freshmen assigned to postsecondary remediation. In 2014, 68 percent of community college freshmen in Tennessee were assigned to remediation courses, a decline from 77 percent in 2011. In 2014, 33 percent of TBR university freshmen were assigned to entry-level college courses that included some form of learning support, a decline from 43 percent in 2011.

Continued data development and research are needed for policymakers to track the college readiness of Tennessee students at the secondary and postsecondary levels and to evaluate the impact of recent reform initiatives.

OREA is a division within the Comptroller’s Office that is charged with providing accurate and objective policy research and analysis for the Tennessee General Assembly and the public.

To view the full report online, go HERE.

Auditors question merit pay plan for state employees

There is major disagreement between state auditors and top Human Resources Department officials about Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to eliminate across-the-board pay raises for 40,000-plus executive-branch employees and replace them with a merit-pay system, reports Andy Sher.

A new performance audit by Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office questions whether enough managers and supervisors were adequately trained to ensure the new standards, employee performance plans and evaluations work objectively and fairly as promised.

Auditors also warned that “a number of weaknesses in the performance management model could affect the objectiveness and fairness of the process.”

Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter and department officials rejected many of the findings. A former Hamilton County government personnel chief, Hunter said auditors’ concerns about training are misplaced.

“We feel very confident that our learning initiatives are competent and effective,” Hunter told a joint House and Senate Government Operations Subcommittee during a Dec. 16 hearing on the audit.

Hunter later added, “I think our biggest challenge here was the timing of the audit was in the middle of our efforts to make the process better.”

…Pay for performance is a key provision in Haslam’s 2012 landmark Tennessee Excellence, Accountability, and Management (TEAM) Act.

TEAM rewrote decades-old civil service laws to promote Haslam’s vision of a better-trained, better-managed and high-performing workforce. The act rewards those who do well under a five-tier evaluation system, and makes it easier to fire poor performers.

Hunter and her top deputies describe a “massive culture change” now taking effect after more than three years of hard work. The audit lays out the sometimes painful details of significant challenges faced by the Human Resources officials who spearheaded training for managers and supervisors across 33 executive departments and agencies.

Among them was having only 14 facilitators in the department’s Strategic Learning Solutions Division tasked with training 8,500 executive branch managers and supervisors by July 31, 2015, as “raters” for the new process, auditors said in one finding.

Note: The full audit report is HERE.