Its been eight years since I first took office and assumed the many responsibilities of Hamilton County Auditor.
In 1991, I promised to bring "integrity, competence, and fairness" to an office that had been wracked by scandal. Since then we have set and, for the most part, met high standards for ourselves in doing the publics business.
Through aggressive management, attrition, investment in technology and cross training, weve reduced our staff from 174 in 1991 to 123 at the end of 1998. This near thirty percent (30%) net reduction came despite the assumption of considerable new tasks, including building of a new sixteen (16) person computer department, taking over the City of Cincinnatis Weights and Measures inspections, and direct administration of dog licensing.
We have created unprecedented opportunities for citizen participation in the reappraisal process. When we said we would hold forty-seven (47) days and nights of meetings across the county to hear peoples comments on their rising property values, people told us we were crazy. But we took the chance.
We became one of the first appraising jurisdictions in the nation to make our property information available on the Internet, in effect creating 24-hour service, 7 days a week. Over a thousand people now use our website every day. (You are welcome to join them).
We prepared the first Comprehensive Annual Financial Report in Hamilton County history. And then followed that with a Citizens Financial Report which is published annually in both major newspapers. These reports have received national recognition every year since they began in 1992.
And even now a significant investment is being made to create a state of the art accounting system. Instead of twenty (20) users, there are now hundreds.
We even use interactive voice response technology to enable people who find lost dogs to return them to their owners.
And we have worked diligently to serve citizens. A letter I received this past week, said, in part, "I left your office amazed and very, very happy. I had never before gotten such high quality, professional service from a government office, and it has left a lasting impression on me".
So, we have done something different from what the prevailing culture of government expects or even tolerates. We have taken the risk, daring to change the way things were always done. We have taken an entrepreneurial instead of a bureaucratic approach to doing the publics business.
With an incredibly talented management team, an excellent support staff and a fine group of employees, we have accomplished much. But we will not rest on our laurels.
Here are some trends that tell you why our work has really just begun.
At the close of 1983 there were 4,045 county employees. Just fifteen (15) years later our county had 5,790 full-time employees. That is a forty-three (43) percent increase.
This reflects the broader expansion in the size and scope of our government. There are now ten (10) (excluding the independent and separately accounted for Park District) county wide tax levies and another new one to be voted on in May.
They run the gamut:
From general operations to museum debt...
From Drake Hospital to University and Childrens Hospital...
From Police Information to Zoological Parks...
From Mental Health Services to Mental Retardation Services...
From Childrens Services to Senior Services...
The truth is that in so-called "conservative" Hamilton County, Ohio we very nearly have cradle to grave government funded services. And the cost rolls up.
To more accurately see our governments growth, consider that in 1997 dollars (held constant for inflation) the annual taxes paid to the county for these levies has gone from $119.7 million in 1983 to $220.7 million in 1997.
That is an eighty-four (84) percent increase in the countys property tax burden on our citizens.
To further illustrate my point, last year my office issued nearly one-half million checks for goods and services. We account for a three billion-dollar plus entity. It is staggering. And all this has happened while our countys population has remained relatively static.
So what does all this tell us? It tells me that the increase in size and scope of our county government has outpaced our capacity and our legal authority to audit it. We do not have the tools to assure the public their money is spent wisely and well. To be honest, it is all we can do some days to get all the checks out the door.
Without those tools we will be further trying the patience of a very generous taxpaying public.
There are actions we can and should take.
Four years ago, I sought legislation to create an "internal audit" function for county government. I renew that call this morning.
While we can - and sometimes do question bills before they are paid, we desperately need some teeth in state law to better protect taxpayers money. County Auditors need the explicit legal authority to audit.
What we all can do - and need to do - is dramatically bolster our spending controls, both at the departmental level before expenditures are authorized and in the Auditors office, pre-auditing before the bills are paid.
Realizing with Lincoln that "precept void of example is vain", we have tried our best to be a model, setting an example that could be followed by others. Here is what we have done to reverse the trend.
My office has fewer employees. We are doing more things and doing them better. We are spending almost the same total dollars on salaries in 1998 as we did in 1992. We have returned over one and a half million dollars in unspent funds to the countys General Fund. We have given back over a million dollars in unspent real estate assessment funds to local taxing entities.
This is not "rocket science"; its common sense. Some might say it is even "conservative". If the county goes along with rather than against the prevailing culture, if all of us continue to grow government, increasing the tax burden on our residents and businesses, then we will have collectively imperiled the very economic growth needed to sustain our future as a vibrant place to live, work and raise our families.
Working together, taking prudent risks, our county will succeed. It is really all just common sense. Thank you very much for your presence this morning.
March 8, 1999