Spreadsheet errors cost Clallam $494,157

PORT ANGELES — Errors on a pair of Clallam County Sheriff’s Office budget documents will cost the county $494,157 in 2017, officials said this week.

A $331,074 Excel spreadsheet calculation error was made on a sheriff’s operations salary worksheet during the annual budget cycle last fall, commissioners learned Monday.

A $163,083 spreadsheet error was made on a sheriff’s jail salary worksheet, officials said.

“It’s about a half-a-million in round numbers,” said Chief Accountant Stan Creasey, who was speaking as a private citizen at the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday. “This is a really big number.”

The spreadsheet errors are among the monthly debatable budget emergencies that commissioners will consider approving after a public hearing Feb. 28.

“At the moment, the general fund budget for 2017 is in deficit by $2.3 million in round numbers, and with the addition of this error correction, we are in deficit of about $2.8 million,” Creasey said.

“Not only is the deficit for 2017 much larger than was previously calculated, but the implied [financial] problem for 2018 and every following year is bigger by the same amount.”

Commissioners have been working with other county leaders to reduce the projected draw on the general fund reserve by $1.5 million.

Clallam County’s general fund reserve balance was $10.6 million heading into this year. Most of that reserve is restricted for specific purposes.

“Let us not forget that the budget deficit we face in 2017 is in a year with extremely good revenue projections,” Creasey said.

“In another year with weak or even normal revenue, our financial problems could be much larger.”

Commissioners discussed the errors and other proposed budget emergencies in their work session Monday.

“All of the personnel lines were correct,” Chief Civil Sheriff’s Deputy Alice Hoffman told the board.

“All of the calculations were correct for step increases, benefits. It’s just that the Excel calculations within a couple of different sections were incorrect, and so it wasn’t giving us the right total at the bottom of the spreadsheet.”

County Sheriff Bill Benedict said the net effect of the mistake was that budget lines for personnel were reduced by 10 percent to 12 percent.

The transcription errors were caught by sheriff’s office fiscal specialist Jackie Koon, he said.

“We did some forensics,” Benedict said Wednesday. “The spreadsheets were emailed back and forth between us and [County Administrator] Jim Jones’ office. Because of some cutting and pasting, not all the formulas were pasted correctly. It was an unintended error.”

In the future, Benedict said he would “take a hard look” at all of the personnel forms at the beginning of the budget cycle in July and compare year-over-year salary schedules to ensure that the forms are populated correctly.

“This was an error that was generated through two departments working together,” Benedict said in a telephone interview.

“It was the proverbial computer glitch. I’ll certainly take responsibility for it, but I don’t think anything is going to be gained by looking back.”

At the work session, Benedict said he calculates his department’s “burn rate” every month to keep spending in line with the budget.

“The only number I want to see at the end of each month, or each quarter, is how much of our projected budget have we burned through, and does that match where we are in the calendar,” Benedict said.

By the end of January, budget lines for personnel in the sheriff’s office were considerably higher than the baseline.

“I thought, ‘Holy crap this isn’t right,’ ” Benedict told the board.

Benedict said he rarely negotiates for personnel costs in the budget process because salaries and benefits are driven by union agreements and government programs.

“I don’t have any control of Medicaid,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Peach said he examined the worksheets and determined that “the issue was the transferring of data and also transferring equations.”

“I think a lot of us can look in the mirror and say, ‘Well, gee, we should have caught that,’ ” Commissioner Randy Johnson said.

“Here’s the thing is, yeah, we should have, but it’s worked,” said Benedict, an 11th-year sheriff.

“It’s worked for 10 years. It’s been fine. We haven’t had this. But then it’s one of those things, maybe the fact that it worked so well in the past led us to be complacent.”

County Budget Director Debi Cook said she, Hoffman and Koon “have had lots of conversations about how we’re going to do things differently and better.”

“We’re just going to do a better job of double checking each other and more communication,” Cook said.

During public testimony the next day, Creasey asked commissioners to ponder two questions: Would the board have made different budget decisions had it known the “true magnitude” of the projected deficit, and who will be accountable for the mistakes?

“Errors happen,” Creasey said. “Mistakes are made. We are all human. But at some point, the county’s tolerance for sloppy work cannot stand.”

Board Chairman Mark Ozias said he appreciated the questions Creasey raised.

“I thought that those are worth our consideration, and I am sure that there are other questions worth our consideration as well as we move forward here,” Ozias said.

________

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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