Stark County continues work on resolving 2020 audit concerns; state auditor pleased with progress
An audit by the North Dakota State Auditor’s Office, completed in December of 2020, found six areas for improvement. Stark County has continued their efforts to fix all findings, under the guidance of county auditor Karen Richard and Stark County commissioners.
Stark County — An audit conducted by the North Dakota State Auditor’s Office in December 2020 has remained the focal point of remedial efforts by Stark County commissioners, staff and employees for more than a year. Their work has not gone unnoticed.
The audit, which found among other concerns that Stark County's general fund and multiple special revenue funds cash reserve balances were nearly $40 million in excess of state law, was accompanied by a strong rebuke by the auditor following the release of his findings more than a year ago.
"While paying taxes is necessary for continuity of government provided services, over-taxation of citizens is unacceptable. This is money that belongs to the citizens of Stark County," Gallion said at the time of the audit's release. "These funds come from areas such as property taxes. Having balances that are dramatically over the amount allowed by law is concerning."
With a year in the rear view mirror, and countless work hours centered on bringing the county back into compliance, State Auditor Joshua Gallion offered his acknowledgment and appreciation of the progress taken by the county in remedying the identified issues.
“We appreciate the work the staff at Stark County is doing to address the issues our audit team found,” Gallion said. “We hope that the audit report provided a road map to the leadership at Stark County to make decisions that best serve the citizens in the community.”
The audit, released in a 61-page report, has for the most part been entirely resolved, according to Stark County Auditor Karen Richard.
Among the issues remedied was taking corrective action on ensuring that the county prepared its 2021 budget in compliance with North Dakota Century Code — something the county failed to do in 2020;
Further, the county has updated their processes for retaining records as it had not properly maintained supporting documentation used in their calculations of county's mill levies in 2020.
An Aug. 30, 2022, deadline has been set by the auditor's office for the county to complete their corrective actions for findings uncovered in 2020.
Speaking to The Press, Stark County Commission Chairperson Carla Arthaud acknowledged the audit report and outlined Stark County's development of a corrective action plan aimed at addressing all the issues identified.
"In 2020 our county standard of handling financial matters was a two person show, which isn't to excuse the errors that were made, but to explain how we ended up in this situation two years ago," Arthaud said. "In the months that have followed, and with a new commission, we have worked diligently to resolve these issues and others."
Arthaud added, "Today we have a commission that is collaborative in ensuring that we are doing things by the book. Every commissioner has access to and is responsible for our finances and ensuring that we don't have these type of issues again. The more eyes we have on something, the more likely we are to find problems and fix them."
Stark County Auditor Karen Richard, who assumed the position following the resignation of embattled former auditor Kay Haag , has assisted the development and implementation of the approved corrective action plan aimed at resolving the issues.
According to Arthaud, the process began almost immediately and only minor work remains.
"The county commission holds our public meetings where any taxpayer can show up and be heard, whether they are in favor or against any proposed financial decisions we make. We owe it to our county residents to be diligent with their hard earned taxpayer money and I think we are doing that now," she said. "We are certainly looking at every decision we make through the lens of whether it is fair, legal and in the best interest of the county."
Arthaud said that having a state audit is always a positive because it provides the county with clear guidance on where there is room for improvement.