Breaking down the City Auditor’s math & claims

31 Jul

On Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council passed what I think is a pretty good budget amendment, considering the huge gap they had to fill. They averted the worst cuts, and overall, the community seemed pretty happy. By the time they reached public comment on the budget, most speakers thanked them for the changes before speaking.

But not everyone was happy with the budget. Yesterday, City Auditor Courtney Ruby sent an email to her supporters in which she got got fired up and took aim at the City Council. There’s so much hyperbole and misplaced anger in this email that I thought I’d dissect most of it piece by piece.

Your City Hall “watchdog” is being maimed and only your actions can stop it.

On Tuesday, 15 minutes before the City Council meeting, I was informed by a legislative aide that the Council would be cutting the City Auditor’s budget – to date the cuts by Council to my budget equal 10%. Yesterday, I sent this letter to the editor and today The Oakland Tribune covered the story – you can read it by clicking here.

Sounds pretty bad, huh? What Ruby fails to mention here is that every city department has faced at least 10% cuts. The fire union negotiated with the Council, making significant concessions, and even the police department came to an agreement with the City, freezing their salaries until January 2013. The City Council even cut their own budgets by 20% and Public Works has cut park maintenance staff in half! Oakland is in tough times, and unlike with the state budget, the Council is attempting to truly spread the pain.

As far as the timing goes, well, that wasn’t ideal, but the Council didn’t have much of a choice. After finding out that we weren’t going to get as much from the COPS grant as we had applied for and after a few other items blew holes in the budget, the Council rushed to set up a special Council meeting this week to close the $18.74 million gap. City staff created a budget proposal, released late last week, and the Council understandably didn’t like all of it. So Jane Brunner, Ignacio De La Fuente, Pat Kernighan, and Jean Quan had just a few days to craft something better. So it’s not like they were plotting to hide the cuts from Ruby – they just hadn’t finalized anything until Tuesday.

Also, this 10% cut isn’t entirely new so it shouldn’t have been so surprising. Nearly half of the cut was made on June 30th, when the Council approved cutting $66,630 from the Auditor’s budget by combining the receptionist with the receptionist for the Public Ethics Commission. So this week’s new cut of $70,000 is only a bit more than a 5% cut.

It’s ironic, at a time when oversight is needed to protect every penny from potential fraud, waste and misuse, the City Council, elected by you, chooses to undermine our ability to monitor taxpayer dollars. The fact that they hid their intention to cut this office and then uniformly voted in favor of the cut with the justification that it was simply procedural is a travesty. With a city of our size – the City Auditor’s office should be twice the size it is. Today we are working with less than 50% of the required staffing, a 10% cut is painfully significant and threatens the capacity of your independently elected watchdog.

Hmm, did Ruby pause to think that maybe if the Council “uniformly voted in favor of the cut,” then it might be the right thing to do? Did she bother to take a look at what the Council was not cutting that city staff had recommended cutting? Let’s see, they could have shut the main library down for two days a week so that it would only be open five days. Or they could have entirely closed the San Antonio Recreation Center. Or they could have eliminated the neighborhood service coordinators.

If Ruby had bothered to listen to public comment Tuesday night, she would have heard that those are the issues that citizens of Oakland care about. I think Ruby would be hard pressed to find any citizen who thought a 10% cut to the Auditor’s office was more detrimental than shutting the main library down for two days a week.

It is unfortunate that given all we have had to do in these tough economic times, we need to continually spend time reminding the Council that the citizens of Oakland demand oversight as dictated by the City Charter. The City Auditor’s office is not another “department” of the city – we are the people’s eyes and ears inside City Hall.

Look, I understand that a 10% cut is difficult, but it’s not impossible. These are difficult economic times, and if other departments can make 10-20% cuts (on top of furloughs and reduced salaries), her office should be able to make these cuts too. Also, in 2008, the Auditor’s office was essentially the only department that evaded cuts entirely.

And regardless of what she claims, the City Auditor’s office is a city department. Thank you very much, but my eyes and ears inside City Hall are my own, or maybe sometimes V Smoothe’s or dto510’s or my other politically involved colleagues.

Oakland has not earned the reputation of providing impeccable oversight of public money. Given the City’s difficult budget situation, there is a heightened importance for the City Auditor’s Charter-mandated roles and responsibilities of assessing the effectiveness and efficiency of City programs and services, and ferreting out fraud, waste, and abuse. The first audit we completed on payroll revealed glaring problems with the City’s internal controls and the gross abuse of power by the former city administrator.

Please Ruby, do tell us what you have done to help with the budget situation. If there was any evidence that the Auditor’s work was saving us money, I’d be more sympathetic to these claims, but there’s simply no evidence of this.

And what about this payroll audit she mentions? It’s true that the audit found huge amounts of money wasted. But much of the data and conclusions of this report were later found to be entirely wrong by city staff.

Let us not forget that it was only a few years ago when the Oakland Unified School District failed to invest in an audit function which ultimately landed the District in state receivership –the City and school system paid dearly as a result, and continues to pay as we work to rebuild our school district.

Just last week, I joined Laura Chick, Inspector General for the Oversight of California’s Federal Stimulus Funds, to be part of a workshop for municipalities and non-profits applying for stimulus money. The panel warned potential applicants about the many pitfalls of poor fiscal management and explicitly what should and shouldn’t be done when receiving and using the billions of dollars in federal funds. What the City Council did on Tuesday, in cutting back on oversight, is exactly what shouldn’t be done. It’s a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish.

OK, now Ruby’s gone too far, basically suggesting that with this 10% cut, Oakland is going to fall into the same mess as OUSD, even though there’s no evidence of the same lack of fiscal management that occurred at OUSD. And if you notice the phrases in bold , she’s accusing the City of “fraud, waste and abuse,” “poor fiscal management,” and doing “exactly what shouldn’t be done.” Please Ruby, tell us why in your two and half years you’ve never presented strong evidence of this, if this is truly the case?

Many of you have expressed your concern and outrage to the City Council and for that I am grateful. For those of you who have not yet called or written, I need you to call and write today demanding the Ctiy Auditor’s Office is FULLY FUNDED-that is 100% (not the current less then 50%)

I encourage you to contact the editors at The Oakland Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle with letters letting your voice be heard. It shouldn’t be a struggle to ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely. As citizens of Oakland, we deserve the best!

Now here, I’m going to have to agree with her. Let’s contact the City Council, but to thank them for not shutting the main library or cutting the neighborhood services coordinators. Let’s write to the local papers and explain that every department is facing cuts and that Ruby is not being targeted.

Please know that despite efforts by the City Council to “muzzle” this office, we will continue to work hard. While their actions might only make us the equivalent of half a watchdog, luckily for Oakland we’re the ‘half’ with the teeth.

Committed to serving you with the utmost integrity,

Courtney Ruby, CPA
Oakland City Auditor

Half a watchdog? Because of a 10% cut? Her claim that the Auditor’s office was already cut in half is just not true! It’s been at 10 FTEs (full time employees) since 1998-99! (Since her receptionist is now shared, she’s down to 9.5 FTEs.)

Ruby, if you really are committed to serving us with the “utmost integrity,” please reflect on this hyperbolic message you sent. Reflect on how poorly it reflects on our city government. And if you’d really like to serve us, give up this self-serving campaign, figure out how to implement the cuts, and get back to auditing.

2 Responses to “Breaking down the City Auditor’s math & claims”

  1. Jean Quan August 3, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Your response was more complete that I was able to put in my weekly newsletter in item #3.
    http://www.jeanquan.org/News342.htm

    The only thing I would add is that we know she has a $200,000 plus surplus from the whistle blower program we gave her (one of the few new programs) last year. Giving her over $450,000 for the program next year, so we are no trying to stop her program against waste and corruption.
    We could let her have her $70,000 back and just not carry this over, since she pledged to return the money to the general fund if was not used. The we could restore one of the police service technicians we laid off for another year.

  2. V Smoothe August 3, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Thank you, Becks, for countering the auditor’s hysterical claims with this excellent dose of reason and perspective.

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