By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County did not follow its own policies when it disposed of 16 vehicles it no longer needed, with nine sheriff’s vehicles given free to other police agencies and several cars sold at auction — all without officially being declared as surplus by the county commissioners, according to a state audit of county procedures.
Auditors examined the county’s disposition of 27 vehicles in 2015 and found that the county had followed proper procedure for surplus property for only nine of them. Four of the 16 vehicles without adequate documentation had been declared totaled but hadn’t been officially surplused. Two were sold at private auctions without being declared surplus, and one was sold to a private individual, according to Kathleen Lince, an assistant audit manager with the state auditor’s office.
The auditors issued a management letter, the middle of three levels of concern in their reports, about the county’s failure to follow its own procedures for surplus equipment. The audit and letter were issued in December.
Counties are permitted to give or transfer vehicles to other agencies or governments and to sell them at private auctions, but all vehicles and equipment that the county no longer needs must first be declared surplus by the county commissioners through a resolution, said Lince. The county has an appropriate policy for handling surplus equipment, but not all departments followed the procedure, so the commissioners were not aware these vehicles had been transferred, she said.
“The big picture in these particular cases is that departments handled their own surplus vehicles,” said Lince. “They should have been run through the commissioners first to be surplused. Then you decide how to dispose of them.”
Looked at procedure
While auditors sometimes look at the value received for surplus equipment, the auditors restricted their review to the procedure and whether the county had adequate documentation, said Lince. Their management letter to the county only addressed the failure to comply with the county’s own policies, not whether the county obtained adequate compensation, she said.
The majority of the vehicles — including all that were given away for free — were from the sheriff’s department. Two assessor’s office vehicles were sold at auction, one from the building department was totaled, and one from juvenile detention was sold to a private individual, said Lince.
The county is taking additional steps to ensure that all vehicle transfers and titles go through the commissioners, County Auditor Laurie Thomas said this week. Not all departments had been aware of the procedure, she said.
Thomas researched the disposition of the vehicles last year after a request from the state auditor. She found six vehicles had been transferred to the Soap Lake Police Department, and one each to police departments in Tonasket, Riverside and Republic, all for free. Four other vehicles had been totaled or destroyed, she said.
Of the nine vehicles that were given away, seven were subsequently sold by the other police departments for amounts ranging from $275 to $4,500, according to Thomas.
In an email she sent to the commissioners in August, Thomas wrote, “Out of the 9, 7 were subsequently sold to private parties for a total of $14,325.00!!!!! It appears we are lacking surplus documentation for these vehicles and why did they not go through our surplus sales!”
Value not at issue
The state auditors were not concerned about whether the county had been adequately compensated for the vehicles.
“To be clear, it may or may not be considered allowable to transfer assets for free. However, in order to determine this we would have to research state laws and pass the information by our legal counsel to make a final determination, but that determination was not part of our audit scope in this case,” said Lince by email.
A 1997 opinion by the state attorney general about the transfer of property between government agencies found that the requirement in state law to obtain “full value” can be applied flexibly to take into account particular circumstances. Value can take forms other than monetary consideration, such as trade of other property or services performed, he said.
Police departments often help each other out with old vehicles because many smaller agencies have no budget to purchase new ones, said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers in an interview this week.
The sheriff’s office generally gave vehicles to a town or city within the county, with the understanding that those agencies sometimes helped sheriff’s deputies, said Rogers. But his department stopped making these transfers about two years ago, he said.
Rogers said everyone had been aware of the situation because they transferred the vehicle titles to the other police departments.
Okanogan County has also been on the receiving end of free vehicles. In approximately 2004, Colville tribal police gave the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department two vehicles, said Rogers. A few years later, when the sheriff’s contract to provide police protection for Twisp ended, the sheriff’s office got cars from Twisp, he said.
“If you had looked at the rigs we gave away — they’re just horrible,” said Rogers. “We just drive them till they die.”
The cars the sheriff’s office gave to Soap Lake were all junk and several had to be towed there, said Rogers. “They [Soap Lake] were trying to piecemeal them together, stealing fenders and light bars,” he said.
Most of the patrol cars used by the sheriff’s deputies have more than 200,000 miles on them, and some have more than 300,000, said Rogers. Now when a vehicle is no longer roadworthy, it is put in a “bone yard” so the department can swap out fenders or tires to stretch money, he said.
Patrol cars typically last about three years, but now the department often uses them for twice as long. “We put in new motors and transmissions left and right,” said Rogers.
The county sheriff’s department currently has six junk cars, two totaled after collisions with deer and one with a nonfunctioning engine.
The department used to purchase four new patrol cars every year, but got no new ones in 2014 or 2015. Last year the sheriff’s office was able to buy one car with county money and another with a grant, said Rogers.
This year he will not know for several months whether the sheriff’s office will be able to purchase new cars, said Rogers.
The auditors will do another review this summer to examine the county’s procedures for handling surplus equipment in 2016, said Lince.