With an Auditor’s Eye in Arlington

With an Auditor’s Eye in Arlington

County seeks efficiency gains.

With an annual general fund budget of $1.3 billion, it’s always good to have another set of eyes giving the county’s financing a look-over. At the County Board’s June 19 meeting, County Auditor Chris Horton proposed a work plan for reviewing the county’s procurement practices, economic development incentive funds, and business improvement districts.

Horton said he was aware of audit’s reputation as a “gotcha” game, but emphasized to the county and the public that this wasn’t his role. Horton, who reports to the County Board but works independently, said his goal was to provide analysis to help the county improve performance and reduce costs.

In auditing the county’s procurement practices, the audit will primarily be focusing on the Department of Management and Finance to look at the efficiency of procurement from the county’s initial request through to contract completion.

The next part of the audit is on an area that’s been somewhat controversial in Arlington: economic development incentive funds. These are funds, often in the form of tax relief, offered to businesses or economic drivers to lure them into Arlington County. The audit focuses on monitoring the funds for compliance with the agreed-upon requirements. However, Horton noted that the overall effectiveness of the funds is not included as part of the scope of the audit. Horton said an audit looking at the effectiveness of the economic development incentives could be done at a future date when more long-term trend data is available.

The audit will also review Arlington’s three Business Improvement Districts. Horton said this audit will look at the county’s effectiveness in overseeing the BIDs and whether the county should make changes to improve the BID effectiveness. The audit will be conducted with an eye towards Arlington Economic Development, but Horton also said the needs of the BIDs will be taken into account as well and the audit will include discussion with BID leadership.

Auditing the BIDs as part of a review of Arlington’s economic health hit a nerve with some on the County Board.

“Part of the audit … is looking at where we can save money,” said Erik Gutshall. “[It’s] looking at where we can squeeze more out of where we spend. BIDs are not the best place to look for that.”

But County Board member John Vihstadt said that a review of the BIDs could still be healthy for the county.

“Obstensibly, the BIDs are functioning well and helping to drive the economy,” said Vihstadt, “but one of the beauties of an audit is it’s not just dealing with known areas of weakness or concern but other significant components of Arlington County government [so we can] continue to function in a high fashion.”

It wasn’t as discussed as heavily as the others, but Horton also said the Sheriff’s Department will be undergoing an audit as well, looking at the administration and use of overtime. This is the fourth in a series of audits targeting public safety overtime.

Other potential audits Horton included in his work plan were an audit of the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Commission and of site plan benefits in the county.

“There is an idea that the auditor is [here to find] free money, or is hunting fraud waste and abuse,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol. “I want to take a moment to frame expectations. I trust you’re going to find ways to increase efficacy of programs, hopefully find some efficiencies, but something for nothing is not something we can expect from you.”