After being hit with a critical state audit – one that labeled his organization’s spending habits for meetings extravagant and ridiculous – the leader of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission said the agency plans to do better.
“There is almost always room for improvement, and we have already taken several steps to make sure we properly assess expenditures and exercise good judgment as we strive to fulfill our mission effectively and efficiently,” said Andrew Dehoff, executive director of the commission.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has been reviewing the commission’s revenue and expense records since February and released his findings on Thursday. In his report, he stressed that the commission needs to be more accountable and transparent. Charged with preserving water supply and quality, the commission receives funding from the federal government, member states including Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York, and user fees.
DePasquale’s investigation found that the commission spent more than $1,000 on alcohol for meetings during its 2016-17 fiscal year. Along with the liquor tab, the commission spent $16,259 on food and gratuities related to meetings, including appetizers, filet mignon, salmon and Maryland crab cakes, along with side dishes and desserts.
“It really begs the question: what’s going through your head when you decide to use public funds for such ridiculous meals?” DePasquale said. “Did anyone even consider brown-bagging their lunch, as so many hardworking Pennsylvanians do every day?”
Auditors reviewing SRBC spending also found $14,048 in questionable costs associated with rewards and perks for employees, including:
- Monetary and gift card rewards of $8,031;
- A staff holiday party expense of $3,074;
- A staff picnic costing $1,585;
- A $100 gift card purchase for a wedding gift;
- Bereavement donations totaling $800; and
- Flower purchases totaling $458 for Administrative Professionals Day.
“These panels are not private businesses; they are governmental bodies that must be accountable for every last penny that they spend,” DePasquale said.
Dehoff said the commission believes the audit was thorough and helpful. His organization also is in agreement with nearly all of the recommendations.
“As a governmental entity, we have always been committed to transparency, and the audit identified several ways that we can be even more so,” he said. “For example, we have already posted the reports from our last two audits on our website.”
This audit was authorized by the 2017 state budget. It came after years of constituent complaints about the commission fielded by state Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill and other lawmakers. Businesses and municipalities have claimed they have been subjected to a pattern of costly and unnecessary reports that led to threats of fines, penalties or shutdowns from the commission if they didn’t comply.
Criticism also has come from state officials who have said the commission duplicates work done by other state agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The audit recommends that the commission update the guidelines it follows in cooperating with DEP. And to improve public communications, the audit said, the commission should post an outline on its website of its responsibilities and procedures compared to those of DEP.
Dehoff agreed the protocols need to be updated, adding: “We were pleased the audit confirmed that we supplement and augment, but do not duplicate, the activities of DEP,” he said.
In addition, the audit found that signatory parties to the commission, including Pennsylvania, are not providing adequate funding to the commission. In 2016-17, Pennsylvania provided $473,000 to the commission, an underpayment of $318,250.