September 19, 2023

Ministry of Agriculture has weak surveillance, “control problems”, audit says

The Utah State Office Building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, April 4, 2021. New audit finds Utah Department of Agriculture lacks a “culture of control” that led to errors. (Annie Barker, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY – A recent audit found that a state agency did not have a “culture of control” which led to errors such as an employee being reimbursed $ 7,400 in mileage for a trip in a state-owned vehicle.

The Utah Department of Agriculture has gone through four different commissioners in five years, Jesse Martinson, senior legislature-ordered audit supervisor, told lawmakers at an interim meeting this week.

“One thing that concerns us while we have been doing the audit work is what appears to be sort of a history of oversight weaknesses and control issues within the department,” said Benjamin Buys, head of the department. audit.

“We believe this is a problem that has endured for many years,” he said, noting that Commissioner Craig Buttars recently took the helm after being appointed by Governor Spencer Cox in December. . Prior to that, Buttars served as Cache County Director for six years.

Buttars replaces Logan Wilde, who took the job after former department commissioner Kerry Gibson resigned to run for Utah’s 1st Congressional District, and was subsequently audited for ‘unwarranted travel expenses », Bonuses and other allegations of embezzlement of public funds.

In the case of the employee receiving thousands of mileage reimbursement funds, Martinson said the employee refunded the money once the error was identified.

But the incident is an example of the state’s lack of oversight and control of vehicles, the auditor said.

After the employee signed and submitted a mileage reimbursement – although the reimbursement was only available for travel in personal vehicles – the approval processes were bypassed because the employee’s supervisor did not. signed, and the division manager delegated his approval to a subordinate who “stamped the shape” without the director’s advice, Martinson said.

The department’s state-owned vehicles are also underutilized despite a high price tag, he said.

The auditors used the GPS data to analyze nine weeks of vehicle usage data from January to March 2021 and found that some vehicles in the ministry’s fleet had only been used once during that period.

“Since the department has spent an average of nearly $ 1 million per year on state vehicles over the past five years, management must determine the correct number of vehicles to maximize taxpayer funds and avoid to have idle vehicles, ”Martinson said.

The audit also found that the ministry “did not fully comply with federal grant requirements. We found that some employees appeared to be charging overtime to two separate federal grants,” Martinson said.

This made listeners fear that the state could lose federal money this year. The Department of Agriculture plans to receive $ 8.37 million from the federal government in 2022, or 14% of the department’s funding.

“These grants are for programs such as animal disease tracing, invasive species control, pesticide application, and suppression of Mormon crickets and grasshoppers. (The Department) should ensure that controls over them Grants are in place so that funding for these important programs is not put at risk, ”the auditors wrote in the report.

Auditors also believe the ministry does not understand how its programs are funded on a fee basis, and the fees that administrators ask the legislature to approve each year are based on incomplete information, according to Martinson.

Between 2016 and 2022, the department recorded a deficit that reached $ 2.5 million, he said. But listeners believe the programs could instead be fully funded by fees.

Martinson said the department’s regulatory services division also needs to improve oversight, as violations often go unresolved.

“Two regulatory programs, Retail Foods and Weights and Measures, do not sufficiently hold establishments accountable for inspection violations. The retail food program does not track the number of critical violations resolved,” Martinson said.

Critical violations include those that contribute to foodborne illness, including cooking, reheating, cooling, heating and sanitizing controls. In 2020, inspectors performed 1,334 routine inspections where they found at least one critical violation, and 457 of them did not receive follow-up inspections, according to Martinson.

The auditors recommended implementing policies for the enforcement of violations.

Buttars said the department is committed to fixing the issues and has been working to do so since taking the job.

“I think some of these issues we weren’t aware of when they were brought to our attention, but others were, and I feel the ministry has been working to raise awareness. listeners to some of the shortcomings that we are well aware of and believe that we have already taken steps to correct many of them, ”he said.

“Of course we see the high turnover rate at the top of the department, and it was certainly brought to my attention before I accepted this position.… But it’s an issue that I know there is a will to. to change there, and it’s my commitment that with our other employees, I know we’re all on the same team, we all look at things the same way and we all have a desire to make the corrections needed here, ”Buttars added.

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