By Don Nelson
The Washington State Auditor’s Office’s latest “report on accountability” for the Town of Winthrop found that, because of procedural problems, the town may have accumulated $150,000 or more in uncollected fines, citations and fee that were processed through its municipal court.
Town Clerk Michelle Gaines and municipal Judge David Ebenger said this week the town acknowledged the problem, is working to correct it and expects to recover a good portion of the uncollected funds.
Ebenger also said that there is no evidence that any funds were misappropriated, although the auditor’s report noted that “insufficient controls over [the] Municipal Court created a high risk of loss or misappropriation.”
The auditor’s report, issued Monday (April 21), reflects the results of the state’s audit of the town’s operation for the calendar year 2013.
The report says that “the Town has over $150,000 in outstanding court cases that require processing or collection. The court clerk did not properly use the [state’s] Judicial Information System (JIS) process and track citations in order to monitor and collect on court cases. … we found the Town’s Municipal Court had significant control deficiencies over recording of transactions in the case management systems, collections and cash receipting.”
The audit found 416 cases for which a receivable statement was never created, “representing roughly $118,000 owed to the court.” In addition, the audit said, the town had a total of $37,000 in accounts receivable (money owed to the town) at the end of 2013.
The audit noted that the clerk previously responsible for the court’s processes was not sufficiently trained in the state’s system, and recommended proper training, better record keeping, effective tracking and follow-up procedures, and more consistent depositing of funds.
In response to the state, Ebenger — a Winthrop attorney who serves as municipal judge — stressed that he had no reason to believe that any loss of funds or misappropriation had occurred. “The problem is not a problem of misappropriation; it is a problem of record keeping which conforms to audit requirements … the problem is that the court clerk was unable to perform the basic duties of her position in this respect.”
The town has subsequently replaced that clerk and hired Jessica Sheehan to fill the position. Sheehan is also a member of the Town Council. Gaines said the town determined that there is no conflict of interest in Sheehan handling both roles. Sheehan is being trained in the proper procedures and use of the JIS. “We have a high level of confidence” in Sheehan, Ebenger said in his response to the auditor’s report.
“We adopt the auditor’s recommendations in full. We will work diligently to perform the recommendations,” Ebenger said in his response.
As for the uncollected debts, Gaines said that some are so old that they will be written off, some have already been collected and others will be referred to a collection agency.