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Auditor may have won battle

April 23, 2019

KANKAKEE — Kankakee County Auditor Jake Lee might get some of the powers he says are legally his, despite resistance from other county officials.

Earlier this year, County Board chairman Andy Wheeler, R-Kankakee, spearheaded an effort for a bill that would curtail county auditors’ duties under state law. But he acknowledged this week the measure went nowhere.

For two years, Lee, who was elected in 2016, has pointed to a state law that requires counties to give their elected auditors general accounting duties. This power provides a necessary check on the board, which approves spending, he said.

The Wheeler-supported bill would have made granting general accounting duties to the auditor optional. Last month, a legislative committee unanimously approved the bill. But the bill later died.

While Wheeler confirmed the bill’s failure, he said the committee’s unanimous approval “gives strong credence that there is an issue.”

Now, he said, the county will proceed with moving general accounting duties from the county board-controlled finance department to the auditor. That transition will take effect Dec. 1, the start of the new budget year.

“This will not happen without added costs to taxpayers, but a bad law is still the law,” Wheeler said in an email. “We, as the board, have never argued that it wasn’t the law, and sought definitions and clarity on its application since March of 2017. We now know that we are not going to be given that by our legislature, so we will proceed accordingly.”

Wheeler said it was improper for the internal watchdog over accounting to be the same as the accountant. “So now that we are going down this risky road, we will be sure to implement additional internal controls, which will add costs,” he said.

The bill’s lone sponsor was Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, whose district includes Iroquois County. Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee, did not sign on.

In a text message Thursday, Parkhurst said she met with both sides and was asked to co-sponsor the legislation. But she said she and her staff were in the middle of researching the issue when the bill died on the House floor.

According to the legislative website, 20 people signed up as supporters of the bill and nearly 200 were against.

Most of the proponents were county board members or officials who answer to Wheeler and the board, including the county’s finance director, Steve McCarty, whose department would see a big hit with the transfer of duties. Two county associations also backed the effort.

On the other side was the county auditors association. Most of the other opponents had no affiliations, many listing themselves as citizens.

Asked why the bill failed to pass, Wheeler said he had his guesses. Without other counties officially signing on, he said the bill would sit idle. He said DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan, president of the Illinois County Auditors Association, “went after this hard and thinks that it is not a conflict to be the auditor and accountant.”

“He is dead wrong. However, he does swing a big stick,” Wheeler said in the email.

Wheeler has said before that having the internal auditor do both auditing and accounting could jeopardize the county’s federal grants.

Lee, a Republican, disagrees. He noted the county, like all government entities, has an external auditor who is not allowed to do the accounting. He said his job is basically that of a comptroller, which many cities and states that receive federal grants have.

“The power resides with the people. The people elect their county auditor,” Lee said.

Noting Wheeler’s arguments about the risks of changing, Lee said the real risk was the current situation, in which he contended Wheeler and those who answer to the chairman, including the county administrator and finance director, fail to answer his emailed questions about finances.

“When, in their minds, they have no obligation to provide information, that’s where your risk is,” Lee said. The county has been “breaking the law, then tried to change the law to absolve itself and then admitted it will break the law until the new fiscal year begins. That is so egregious.”

Lee and Wheeler have been tangling for much of the last two years regarding the auditor’s powers. But Wheeler said in his email his efforts on the legislation were “not about the person, it’s about the process.”