Opinion | State audit unveils problems at CDOT
There is a reason voters refuse to raise taxes, or incur new debt, to fix the state’s substandard highways. They do not trust the Colorado Department of Transportation and the political class that oversees it.
A new report by the Office of the State Auditor offers a detailed basis to underscore their distrust.
Something just is not right, and taxpayers have sensed it for years. The transportation department fueled concerns three years ago when it spent nearly $200 million on new offices, while routinely telling the public the agency lacked funds for transportation maintenance, repairs and road enhancements.
“Where you work is just as much a part of your job as the work that you do…” explained a CDOT blog post on Sept. 27, 2018, as transportation employees moved to new digs. “While none would argue that the old Headquarters was not meeting the needs of CDOT’s employees, there was still anxiety around leaving the building they had grown accustomed to. Where will I sit? How will my commute change? What accommodations will the new building have? What about my favorite lunch spot?”
While CDOT let transportation assets deteriorate — spending time, money and energy on a big move — it also neglected its fiscal responsibilities.
The state auditor’s recent performance audit begins by stating “CONCERN,” which is spelled out in a red box.
“In Fiscal Year 2017, the Department of Transportation spent 37 percent more than it requested in its Budget Allocation Plan for the year. The Budget Plan, which is annually approved by the Transportation Commission, did not include prior-year revenue that was still available to spend.”
As the agency spoke of severe fiscal restraints, it kept money off the books.
The “CONCERN” continued: “Additionally, the Department lacks processes to detect and deter employee fraud through data analysis…”
That means a department that keeps prior-year revenue off the books, away from public view, lacks adequate means for preventing employee theft of taxpayer money. Later the report discloses findings of “suspicious patterns and anomalies” regarding the lack of fraud security measures.
More “CONCERN”: CDOT “does not always close construction projects in a timely way, and does not always use master task order contracts as designed.”
Other alarming findings include:
• “A budget-to-actuals analysis cannot be performed for nearly $1.3 billion (about 80 percent) of the Department’s approved budget due to a lack of alignment between the Budget Plan and how the Department tracks expenses in the accounting system.”
• “The Department did not include statutorily required information in the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Plan, including more than $1 billion carried forward from prior years, and construction and maintenance project information.”
• “The Budget Plan did not accurately reflect federal highway funding. In Fiscal Year 2017, the Department received $718.6 million in federal funding—about $43.7 million more than was included in the approved Budget Plan.”
• The department’s budget practices delayed “the release of $29.3 million in budgeted construction funds for projects we reviewed.”
Every aspect of the report details an agency that has managed public funds with a lack of accountability and transparency.
“Incomplete information reduces the effectiveness of the budget plan as a management tool and decreases transparency and accountability of the department’s budget,” explains the auditor’s report. “The information that we found missing from the budget, such as the amount of funds the Department expects to carry forward from prior years, its total construction budget, and projects in progress or planned, are fundamental aspects of the Department’s financial planning and would help policymakers make more informed decisions and hold the Department accountable.”
These problems occurred under former Gov. John Hickenlooper, a candidate for president, and his transportation director. Gov. Jared Polis and his new director, Shoshana Lew, must straighten out these problems immediately and improve the culture of CDOT.
Our roads and bridges are essential to the state’s economy. More importantly, they are a matter of life and death. Straighten out CDOT. Start by correcting the books and giving the public a clear view of the money available to fix our roads.
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