Officials in Utah's counties worry that state lawmakers are overreacting to a multimillion-dollar scandal uncovered earlier this year at a mental health center.
But lawmakers and the legislative auditor general believe changes are necessary to prevent abuses such as at the Timpanogos Mental Health Center, where an estimated $3.5 million was allegedly misused in recent years.The apparent abuses were uncovered in an audit released in April. Three top administrators at the center have been charged with a combined 117 counts relating to the reported thefts and abuses, including the use of company credit cards for personal vacations.
"Some of the reaction to Timpanogos is to want to tighten the audits, but in many ways that wouldn't have avoided the problems," Brent Gardner, director of the Utah Association of Counties, said Wednesday. "If you have contracted with a guy and he's protecting someone, how are you going to overcome that?"
Lawmakers believe there are ways. With the start of the legislative session only one month away, they already have introduced two bills aimed at tightening controls over audits performed on local government organizations.
One, drafted by Legislative Auditor General Wayne Welsh, would require the state auditor to yearly examine the finances of all local mental health authorities that receive state funding. The audits currently are being done under the direction of the local governments.
The other bill, sponsored by Sen. LeRay McAl-lister, R-Orem, would require local governments to hire licensed certified public accountants to perform audits on all agencies yearly. The bill also would set strict guidelines for audits and require that all the information be sent to the state auditor.
Backers say officials did not detect problems at Timpanogos largely because the yearly audit was done by an accountant who was selected by the center's director and who never notified the state of irregularities.
The first bill is criticized by some for being too narrow - focusing only on mental health centers and ignoring other agencies that receive state funds. The second bill is criticized by some for leaving a loophole big enough to exclude the largest mental health centers in the state.
"That bill would only apply to governmental agencies," Welsh said. Many counties, including Salt Lake, Davis and Cache, have turned their mental health responsibilities over to a private business. Those businesses may argue they are exempt from the bill's requirements, even though they accept public funds.
All sides are expected to voice their opinions in a legislative interim committee meeting next week.