SALT LAKE CITY — An anonymous complaint submitted through a hotline managed by the Utah Office of the State Auditor prompted a review that reveals a handful of concerns related to the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the search and rescue operation it oversees.
In a report released Wednesday, auditors, who assessed records going back to 2013, highlighted the need for better oversight on how the county handles donations to the search and rescue division, the management of a gift card program for employees and volunteers, and the protocols for approving purchases made on county credit cards.
The report also uncovered "at least one county employee (on two occasions) used county equipment for incidental personal use" and questioned a sheriff's department transaction in which one vehicle was purchased and 10 traded in without the appropriate pre-authorization by the three-member Washington County Commission.
Washington County Commission Chairman Zachary Renstrom told the Deseret News he and his commission colleagues were using the report as a tool to initiate improvements in county processes.
"The three of us are always looking for opportunity to improve our accounting methods and improve our stewardship of taxpayer money," Renstrom said. "We welcome the auditors report, showing us how to improve how we can account for things."
Renstrom said the bulk of the report highlighted issues that will be easily remedied by making some simple changes in accounting practices. For example, he noted that for years private contributions to the search and rescue operation had been kept in a separate, dedicated account as a way to simplify ensuring that donations for specific items actually paid for those items.
Auditors, however, determined donations need to go into county coffers so they are "subject to the same budgetary, oversight, and reporting requirements as any other public funds."
Renstrom said the gift card program has been suspended and another method of recognizing and awarding county employees and volunteers is under consideration. Regarding the finding of misuse of county property, Renstrom said the county was following the auditors' recommendation of improving employee conduct training requirements, including adding "refresher" courses.
Asked about the vehicle transaction misstep noted in the audit, a Washington County Sheriff's Office spokesman referred to a response letter sent to the auditor's office. The letter was signed by Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher and the three members of the county commission.
"The county believes it is important to note that while the transactions should have received prior commission approval, the transactions were otherwise conducted according to the county's procurement code and have since been ratified because the commission believes that the transactions resulted in significant savings to the county," the letter stated.1 comment on this story
While the sheriff, like commission members, is an elected position in Washington County, the commission functions as the budgetary entity for county operations, including law enforcement. Renstrom highlighted that although auditors found the need for improvements in several areas, there was no evidence of any missing funds or malfeasance, particularly as it related to how search and rescue donations have been handled.
The auditor's report notes almost half of the county's search and rescue operations budget over the past four years, approximately $280,000, was covered by donated funds.