In the past 18 months, the City Auditor's office has completed or launched a dozen audits into cost overruns, management practices, record-keeping deficiencies and plain old line-item accounting. And it's no coincidence that Bill Vinson came on board as city auditor 18 months ago either.
With his arrival in May 1992 he brought a new type of auditing to Palo Alto, investigating more than just how the numbers stack up, but how the city and its services function on a daily basis. It's a more prominent role than the office had when it was first established in 1984. Vinson is often asking the question: Can the status quo be improved upon?
"Our focus has expanded to include operational audits that look at the efficiencies and economies of city operations, rather than just validating numbers," Vinson said. "In the past, there were just financial audits: sales tax recovery-type audits, contract audits. We've had an increase in both the number and type of audits."
Often the audits are sparked with simple questions posed out of curiosity, such as when City Council member Ron Andersen saw a city of Palo Alto vehicle in San Jose last winter and a red light flashed in his head. Andersen asked the auditor about it and Vinson looked into it.
It turned out there was no impropriety in that instance, but it was apparent that a complete audit of city vehicle use was warranted, Vinson said. It had never been the subject of an audit before and the city has a substantial amount of dollars tied up in its fleet of 174 cars and light trucks. The average vehicle cost is more than $10,000, and there's annual gas, maintenance, insurance and other costs on top of that.
Besides the city vehicle use audit issued last month, Vinson's office is currently wrapping up several other audits:
An investigation of the PASCO trash collection contract, scheduled to be issued in mid-February.
An evaluation of Cable Co-op's payments of franchise fees to the city (approximately $200,000 annually), to be issued in February or March.
A breakdown of payroll timekeeping and overtime practices in several city departments. This was triggered by an overtime scandal in the Utilities Department last year that resulted in the arrest of two employees in August on charges that they embezzled more than $5,000 by claiming unearned overtime pay. The audit should be issued by the end of March or April.
An investigation of Telephone Users Tax procedures and the approximately $1.5 million a year it brings into the city. It should be issued sometime in April or May.
Prior to coming to Palo Alto, Vinson gained most of his experience in operational auditing as the director of internal auditing for AC Transit of Alameda and Contra Costa counties and before that as an auditor for Carter, Hawley, Hale Stores, the parent company of such department stores as the Emporium.
Vinson is one of four City Council-appointed officers and takes requests from the Council and City Manager June Fleming, with whom he meets monthly. He answers only to the Council, however.
"It's a good structure," he said. "It provides us with the independence needed to do operational audits. I have nine bosses that I'm accountable to and that's it. I am truly impartial. I have no concern with what the audit finds."
There is a constant revolving door of things to be audited, Vinson added. "We will never run out of things to do. There's always some new program that needs to be looked at and by the time we're done with that there will be something else that needs auditing again."
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