Thurston County has found a classic way to waste $122,000 (and apparently lose another $60,000). Last year, our money was wasted on the purchase of 73 overpriced laptops. Twelve of them are nowhere to be found. Apparently, this is also business as usual. The same people who invented the $42,000 pocket gopher tax, produced budgets where the math doesn’t add up, built a $61 million jail that sat empty for almost 5 years, and set a new state record ($12 million) for losing a land use jury verdict, wrote yet another chapter in poor resource management.
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Deep in the bowels of the Thurston County bureaucratic archives sits a rarely-seen document called the Capital Assets Report which all 39 counties in Washington State must file (RCW 36.32.210). Historically, this document was impossible to acquire without a public records request. Last year, several local good-government activists confronted the county about the slipshod filing history of these reports (in violation of state law) and the jumbled mess that the reports represented. That is a story for another time. However, to the credit of Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall, the document is now available online (linked here) for all to download, review, marvel, and weep as they see fit.
According to the most updated report, last year Thurston County purchased 61 Getac Ultra Rugged 13” Notebooks at a price of $5,945.86 each (A few were purchased at 1 cent less – maybe a volume discount?). They were purchased through a national company called PCS Mobile and Tessco. According to county records, these laptops were intended for use with the Sheriff’s office, although General Services has “possession” of the assets at Thurston County according to their own records. See page 23-24 on this document.
Certainly, the sheriff’s department does need military-grade laptops in their road vehicles. Anyone who has ever been on a ride along with the sheriff’s office can appreciate the value of having quality tools in the field. However, this was a fairly significant expenditure ($356,751 – even using Common Core math, note the actual invoice amount of $393,204 was different). The problem with this purchase is that even with a cursory review on Price Zombie (and there are many free apps to track historical pricing), anyone could see that this same laptop was available for $3,318. This isn’t cheap but is $2,628 less than $5,946. It appears that the total money lost in this one transaction is $157,672 (however, the actual invoice paints a different picture).
What Happened to the Missing Laptops?
When a records request was filed with Thurston County for the actual invoices involved in this transaction, the picture doesn’t improve much. It appears that Thurston County actually paid $4,992 per computer, so they only overpaid $1,674 per computer (So only $122,202 wasted – still enough money to cover the cost of at least one more road deputy). However, the invoice related to this purchase raises even more questions:
- Purchase Order #15001258-00 and the invoice/receipt from PCS Mobile indicates Thurston County purchased and received 73 laptops, but only 61 show up on the Capital Assets Report. If you look at the Assets Purchased Report for the same year – you can also see the 61 laptops. What happened to the missing 12 laptops?
- A simple, online price quote check at the time of purchase would have revealed a price of $3,318 for these laptops. Why did Thurston County pay $4,992 for them? (Probable answer – because the Washington Department of Enterprise Services has a standing contract with these vendors linked here , and why would staff take an extra 5 minutes to google the price of anything anyway? It isn’t like they get recognized or rewarded for any cost savings) Why do they record each computer as an asset at $5,945.86 and how did they even justify that final inflated number?
Ultimately, this is just a small transaction for Thurston County which has an annual budget of $93 million ($330 million including all funds), outstanding debt of $102 million, and a capital asset balance of $705 million. However, even looking at smaller transactions like this can raise serious concerns about how local government uses our hard-earned tax dollars. Shouldn’t our elected officials and the bureaucrats they supervise be better stewards of our limited resources?
Many observers conclude that government is wasteful, incompetent, and a terrible steward of our resources. However, shouldn’t someone be responsible somewhere? In Thurston County, there may be nobody actually responsible. Certainly nobody will be held accountable. In theory (and legally according to RCW 36.32.210) the Commissioners are personally liable for the accuracy of the Capital Assets Report. However, there is ample wiggle room in the legal language, so they can claim they “didn’t know” the information was inaccurate provided they don’t pay close attention. The County Manager, Cliff Moore, seems more concerned with imposing septic tank fees, inventing pocket gopher taxes, and ridiculing property owners for their home-building dreams. The assistant county manager (and former finance director) Robin Campbell received a 30% pay raise and promotion when she couldn’t even produce a budget that made mathematical sense in 2014. She is unlikely to be concerned with missing inventory or a wasteful procurement process.
At least the county auditor, Mary Hall, posts the Capital Assets online now, but that office receives annual certificates of achievement awards for excellence no matter how screwed up the finances might be. Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim primarily uses his office to legally shield the Thurston County Commissioners from scrutiny and always gives staff and elected officials a pass regardless of the laws they might be breaking.
The Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley (if he can stay out of federal prison and survive the 17 current Federal Indictments for fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion filed against him) is hardly in a position to pay attention to financial problems of the jurisdictions in the state. Even with Initiative I-900 giving greater authority for the State Auditor to utilize performance audits, this small example of questionable purchases could probably be justified and the missing inventory wouldn’t even be noticed. The state auditor staff who visited Thurston County last year didn’t even bother to look at the capital assets for the last six years because that isn’t where most of the financial messes are typically found. No other Thurston County staff take any responsibility for this type of minor mistake. It is only $122,000, and only 12 missing computers worth another $60,000 or so. What bureaucrat would even notice something like this?
The lesson here is that local government frequently cries poverty and claims they don’t have enough money. In Thurston County, staff and the legacy elected officials are constantly seeking new ways to extract more money from local residents. If the bureaucrats can’t care enough to pay a decent price for computers or even pay attention to the inventory they possess, what are they doing with the larger budgets or the more expensive and complex projects?
If we can’t trust them to do something this simple, why should we trust them on anything else?
This is Thurston County.
However, Thurston County is hardly alone. These types of transactions are occurring in your city, county and state governments as well. Nobody is minding the store. Many citizens don’t have the time or resources to scrutinize their elected officials. It is up to civic minded folk like you and I to sound the alarm.
**See Below for Policy Recommendation and Possible Solutions**
Related Background Articles About Thurston County:
I have been criticized for identifying problems and not providing solutions. Fair enough. Here are a few solutions I would recommend to address this type of problem and hopefully avoid these things in the future:
Thurston County Policy Changes:
- Short term – Find the missing inventory.
- Audit the current inventory process and review how many other items have vanished in a similar fashion, and find them.
- Record true, fair-market value for all assets in the Capital Assets Report rather than the inflated and misleading numbers currently used.
- Don’t include sales tax paid as a long term asset.
- Don’t include “assets” that have zero market value and can’t be sold. Sure money was spent on them, and they should be tracked as an “asset,” but not with original sunk cost value.
- Rather than blindly following year-old DES negotiated price agreement, particularly with large technology purchases (maybe any purchase order over $50k), at least have some type of policy where 30minutes can be spent verifying the price of the item on Google or elsewhere. Technology prices tend to go down – quickly. Leverage this fact to benefit the tax payers.
State Policy Recommendations:
- The entire Capital Asset Report requirements should be updated and strengthened to reflect accuracy and true fair-market value similar to what has been required for businesses the last 40+ years. This is a time tested standard and will produce more accurate results.
- The DES contracts should be aggressively revised on a regular basis. Particularly on technology purchases. It really appears that a lot of money is wasted on technology because of simple inertia and archaic price structuring. This must be reformed.