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Pressure for a Season of Audits

Many budgets other than Block's could stand some scrutiny too

November 17, 1996

Everyone seems to finally agree that a full audit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is needed to answer questions regarding the agency's secretive and lavish spending policies. Sheriff Sherman Block finally broke his silence and agreed last week that such an audit was necessary, not that he had a real choice. The Board of Supervisors should now move smartly forward on getting this audit up and running soon. Note that a certain resonance is to be found in the thoughts of supervisors such as Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who once indicated that she was loathe to single Block out by calling for an audit of his department alone.

It's been clear for some time now that the board is playing with a short deck of budget cards regarding most if not all of the county's numerous departments. Regular audits of all county department budgets, beginning with the major ones and working down, are clearly in order. So too are more descriptive and easily decipherable departmental budgets.

While it isn't likely that voters will ever storm the Hall of Administration to demand copies of county department budgets, it would be a mistake to assume that the public isn't interested in what their local government spends. Just take a look at the recent election, in which the supposedly crime-phobic public turned down a statewide proposition that would have paid for repairing and improving jail security and building new jail space. Moreover, consider the passage of Proposition 218, which will make it much harder for local governments to raise funds for parks, library services, fire suppression zones and some police services. It will be up to local governments to prove that they are using their budgets and general funds as efficiently as possible. That will be much harder if those governments have too little information on how their departments spend money.

The Sheriff's Department, of course, is among the agencies subject to these pressures. The idea of an outside audit of the sheriff's budget cannot be lightly dismissed, and certainly not because Block might object to one. It's not his decision to make, period.

Some suggest that hard feelings between county auditors and the Sheriff's Department might make an internal county audit beyond difficult. Those in favor of a county audit suggest that if it's hard to get to the facts with in-house investigators, it would be that much harder for outside auditors to break through the county bureaucracies.

In any case, audit season should just be beginning at the Hall of Administration. Only further looks into other county department budgets will tell whether the Sheriff's Department's special kind of budgeting--the $466 toaster, the gourmet jail fare--was truly unique or all too common.

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