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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Screwing the pooch and other Brown County priorities

Brown County, South Dakota, the proud home of an EB-5 scandal in which millions of dollars disappeared and were never accounted for and for which a state economic development official allegedly committed suicide, is not going to give up its reputation for SNAFUing without a struggle.  Last month the County Commission expressed concern over $9,000 in late fees the county was charged for making late deposits in regard to the county payroll.  At the time, the commissioners said they were going to have a state auditor define what the problem was.  This month the state auditor told them:

The first fee was $686 for a late remittance to the U.S. Department of Treasury by the auditor’s office, Russ Olson, a state auditor, told commissioners last week. 
The other two penalties were for $4,525 and $4,193 for failing to make payments to the state retirement system on time, Olson said. He added that somebody involved in the process probably wasn’t told about the consequences of missing payment deadlines.
In other words, he said that somebody screwed the pooch.

The question is, who?  The answer is in the county commission which is now dominated by the GOP members whose party has had a long dedication to screwing up government.

The current county auditor and treasurer are elected officials who have been running their departments for years and years without any occasions in which they have made serious errors or late payments for which they had to pay penalties.  With the long, competent experience of the auditor and treasurer,  they would certainly know "the consequences of missing payment deadlines."  Who was involved in that process of missing payment deadlines has not been revealed, but it is not hard to guess given the past of highly competent performance of the relevant offices.  What has changed?

The problem occurred when the commission decided, according to GOP doctrine, that when possible government functions should be farmed out to some private business rather than retain it as function of government, no matter how efficiently and responsibly it has been done in the past.  The principle of privatizing is a myth, like Santa Claus and the Eater Bunny, that is dear to the GOP belief system.  The Republican doctrine maintains that private businesses are always more competent, efficient, and honest than government.  They devoutly assert this belief despite the fact that 90 percent of businesses fail within their first year.  And they refuse to acknowledge that the reason there are so many regulations placed on business is to protect the people from gross incompetence, criminal practices, and destruction of the world.  

So, Commission Chair Fjeldheim said some payroll functions were contracted out to RAM Housing Specialists, Inc.,  at about $5,000 a year to save $25,000 a year in payroll processing costs.  That savings, if there is any, is now down to $16,000 when the $9,000 in penalties is deducted.  No mention is made of where the alleged savings were derived or how the procedures were changed. Fjeldheim said, "The payroll didn’t go too badly. Some people didn’t get their sick leave and some didn’t get vacation, some odds and ends, not reporting some things. The next pay period is sitting pretty well."  The mistakes and their losses to employees were, of course, not included in calculating the overall loss.

The Brown County Commission  previously expressed its devout belief in the supremacy of business and the resoluteness of government in 2015 when it proposed combining the county offices of treasurer, auditor, and recorder of deeds.  Those are elected offices which give the holders certain independent authority to do their jobs well.  The commission realized that such a move should have citizen support, so it had an employee organize a citizen's committee to study the proposal.  After the committee submitted its report, the commission quickly dropped the proposal.  Two members of the citizens  committee told civic groups that the proposal was a naked power grab to take control of those offices from the voters and make them political appointments of the commission.  And, there was no evidence of inefficiency or corruption in the offices.  The idea seemed to have come up because the GOP-dominated commission had to work with three elected Democratic officials who did not go along with the GOP agenda.  The citizens report was put online on the county website.  

There is a strange circumstance regarding that report.  It is no longer on the website.  All the minutes of commission meetings  since 1915 have been digitalized and made available on the Brown County web site, except for the minutes from January 2014 through November 2017.  That is the period during which the Brown County Commission was at its busiest looking for ways to intrude itself into the way county business is conducted.  During that time, a man whose company had provided computer services to the county  and a crony of his put on a demonstration of how cronyism works in local government.  The commission had hired the man to do some computer work for the county.  Then it decided to hire the man as the county's information technology director.

At the outset, there was a problem.  An audit showed that the man being hired as the IT director, Paul Sivertsen, had double-billed the county for a computer he sold to it.  His main advocate and defender on the Commission, Duane Sutton, insisted it was an honest mistake, so the Commission hired him.  

Then began a series of problems with County business involving the IT department.  Tickets sales for the grandstand shows at the Brown County Fair were messed up.  For a time, county offices were not receiving correspondence through Gmail.  Cory Heidelberger's Dakota Free Press covers those instances.  Sivertsen came under quite a bit of criticism, but Commission members defended his work.

In the latest matter involving the pay roll penalties, Sivertsen is barely mentioned, but if the County's charge to his department is taken seriously, he is involved.   The County website says his job is to "develop and maintain software systems to insure statutory compliance as well as the proper flow of County information."  According to a news account, the "commissioners asked their information technology director to automate and integrate the county payroll and benefits systems.

Some of that payroll information which in the past was routinely handled seemed not to have flowed properly.  So, the Commission has relieved its assistant of all his human resources for the rest of the year to concentrate on pay roll matters.  

The problem does not seem to be with County officials and employees who have have a record of doing their jobs efficiently and error-free.  It comes from a County Commission which is obsessed with that GOP scripture that government is in inherently bad and must be demeaned and meddled with by imposing cronies on the work force to interfere with the routine, especially if things are running smoothly.

Those minutes and reports missing from the County website have probably been withheld because they portray the obscenity of the commissioners avidly screwing the pooch.  Ultimately, no one cares what they do, if they'd just leave the competent workers alone so they can do their jobs.

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

Let it go, Dave. South Dakota is a chemical toilet, sacrifice zone, perpetual welfare state and permanent disaster area by design. Expect nothing to change.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States