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'Howellin' for an Audit

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She's sent memos. And faxes. And, by her own estimate, she has publicly raised the issue 17 times in the last five months. And still, County Commissioner Jeri Howells can't get an audit.

Howells is not talking about the annual countywide audit that has been conducted by the Grant Thornton firm for the last 12 years. She's calling for an independent audit of the county's Information Technologies (IT) Department.

Independent audits are not unprecedented in El Paso County government. Last year, outgoing Treasurer Ken Kile requested one for his own department. Also in 2002, an audit was carried out on the county's Procurement and Contracting Department.

The IT Department has been the subject of controversy since 2001 it awarded a no-bid contract to the Aurora-based software firm 5280 Solutions. Originally priced at $22,000 the total cost for an imaging and archiving software system escalated to $439,000 within 18 months.

A competing quote from the Minneapolis-based Metafile firm for $287,000 was rejected for not being sufficiently comprehensive.

"It's the biggest budget that's under the direct supervision of the board," Howells said. "They're allowed in IT to do just what they want to do and that's common knowledge in the county. You're not going to get a lot of people to admit to that because people are worried about keeping their jobs. But it's common knowledge that whatever the IT Department wants they get."

And get it they did, as the 5280 Contract was approved by a vote of 4-1 at last Thursday's county commissioner's meeting.

"This is a department that has over a 10-million-dollar budget," Howells told the board. "I hear from other commissioners that 'we can't afford a $20,000 audit out of a ten million-dollar budget.' I really find that questionable."

IT Department head Bill Miller did not return the Independent's calls for comment.

But Howell's verbal sparring partner, County Commissioner Tom Huffman offered another view.

"It's the usual Howells harassment of the IT Department," Huffman said. "I have no problem if there's a particular area of IT that Commissioner Howells wants to audit, but she doesn't do anything except sit there and say, 'I have demanded an audit!' Before you do something like that with county taxpayer dollars you want to make sure that there's at least a slightly smoking gun there. The fact is that she has not been able to bring that up."

Rookie Commish Wayne Williams echoed Huffman in substance if not style.

"It's a much better use of the taxpayers' money to have Grant Thornton do their audit and then look at it. If they say, 'There's some things here you need to follow up on,' then it may be appropriate to do a specific audit targeted at one county department. But I don't think it makes sense to spend money for two audits simultaneously that overlap each other."

The word Howells has capitalized in several of her memos to the board and county department heads is "credibility." It's the reason, she claims, that dropping $25,000 to audit a $10 million department would be money well spent.

"Nobody's trying to cover anything up or protect IT or anything," said Huffman. "It's just that Howells is doing exactly what I tried to keep from happening in that she's trying to use it (an internal audit) to beat IT over the head because they don't kiss her butt like everybody else."

Much to the consternation of her fellow commissioners, Howells spoke at length before casting her vote on the 5280 Solutions contract last week.

"Mr. Chairman, I am going to vote," snapped Howells as a beleaguered Chuck Brown accidentally overlooked her vote.

"May I vote Mr. Chairman?" Howells pointedly asked before casting an angry "No!"

Without missing a beat, Brown expedited the meeting.

"Thank you, motion passes 4 to nothing. Or ... four to one with Commissioner Howells in opposition."

-- John Dicker

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