By Dee Camp
OKANOGAN - Okanogan and Ferry counties are among more than 40 in the West to be criticized for how they spent federal money last year.
Okanogan County made unallowable purchases with money from the Title III portion of its Schools and Roads grant, the Washington State Auditor’s Office said. That money goes to counties in which national forests are located.
The county purchased $41,608 worth of search-and-rescue equipment, but only $291 of it was to replace equipment lost during a search and rescue or firefighting operation. That’s a stipulation of the grant.
The county did not understand restrictions on use of the funds, the auditor found.
“During an audit of our funds, we were informed we had to spend our money by Sept. 20, 2012,” the county’s response said.
County officials later were advised that because of the audit of Title III funds at the state level, clarification was made and its expenditures were no longer allowable.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said more than 40 counties had their expenditures questioned.
“It took 20 years for someone to figure it wasn’t done right,” he said.
Ferry County also ran into audit trouble with Title III funds.
The program allows a county participating in the Firewise Community fire prevention program to educate and assist homeowners in wildfire-sensitive areas with home siting, construction and landscaping to protect people and property. It doesn’t authorize purchase of equipment or construction of facilities.
Ferry County used $75,534 to build a water reservoir to assist with fire prevention.
As with Okanogan County, state officials concluded Ferry County didn’t understand funding restrictions.
The county, in its response, said Title III funds weren’t explicitly authorized for construction of facilities, but weren’t explicitly excluded.
“It was understand … that after receiving approval as a Firewise Community, that funds were available for purchase of such things as fire hydrants and water storage” for Ponderosa Park, the county said.
Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office looked at the Title III program and concluded the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management should have done a better job of advising counties on allowable expenditures.
“We recommend that the secretary of agriculture direct the chief of the Forest Service and that the secretary of the interior direct the director of BLM to issue formal federal regulations or clear guidance specifying types of allowable county uses of Title III funds to help counties make appropriate decisions regarding these funds,” the accounting office said.
In a second finding, Okanogan County received more than $322,000 in federal funds to purchase a work station, hire two Sheriff’s Office dispatchers and retain one. The county couldn’t use all the money by the end of the grant period, so it used the remaining money to pay salaries and benefits for three other dispatchers whose jobs were not being cut.
Rogers said the county obtained federal permission for the expenditures, but didn’t get it in writing. That will change in the future.
In addition, the county didn’t use the proper accounting code to track expenditures of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money.
The county spent $47,702 or unallowable or unsupported expenditures and didn’t track $22,311 in recovery act funding separately from other dispatch expenditures, the auditor’s report said.