By Mark Wineka
As state taxpayers’ watchdog, N.C. Auditor Leslie Merritt says, he has to be willing to take on tough cases, even if it means confronting the Legislature and governor.
Over Merritt’s first four-year term, the state auditor’s office has conducted roughly 50 percent more performance audits than the previous administration, he claims. The more publicized audits have focused on the state mental health system and the N.C. Department of Transportation.
“We try to bring recommendations on how to do things better,” Merritt told the Post during a visit to Salisbury. “That’s what a performance audit should be. Then we go back and see” if the advice was followed.
Merritt, a 56-year-old Republican from Zebulon, faces Raleigh Democrat Beth Wood in the Nov. 4 general election.
A certified public accountant and certified family planner, Merritt first ran for the office in 2000 and won in his second attempt in 2004.
He is a former Wake County commissioner (1994-98) and operated his own accounting firm for about 20 years. He has degrees in accounting and economics from N.C. State University and is the first CPA to hold the state auditor’s position.
His office employs 202 people, three-quarters of whom are based in Raleigh.
A “progress report” Merritt released in January credits his office with reducing a backlog of investigative audits by 76 percent. Merritt said Thursday some 126 investigative audits were unfinished and backlogged when he assumed office in 2005, and some were three years old.
He worked hard to reduce that number and now tries to have no more than 30 ongoing cases at one time.
Merritt cites other accomplishments in the progress report:
– He increased the number of state-funded nonprofits filling the required reports.
– Launched an initiative to train personnel from funding agencies and nonprofits.
– Reduced the processing time for nonprofit reports.
– Developed “strategic auditing” to identify unusual trends and potential problems in state spending.
“Our word is ‘proactive,’ ” Merritt said of his approach as auditor.
The office used to have one half-time person devoted to the thousands of nonprofits which receive state allocations, Merritt said.
Today, the office has seven employees working with the nonprofits, and the emphasis has been on using the office Web site, a quarterly newsletter and telephone help line to answer questions and get the nonprofits filling out the proper paperwork and getting in compliance quickly if they are not.
Training also was stressed in his first year.
“Ninety-eight percent of the nonprofits want to do the right thing,” Merritt said. “They don’t want to see their names in the paper, and we’re giving them that opportunity.”
But when problems occur, Merritt added, “you’re going to get a visit.”
Strategic auditing involves four people looking closely at the purchasing patterns among state agencies and identifying spending trends where questions need to be asked, Merritt said.
“We’re getting a lot better at that,” he said.
Only 17 states have an elected auditor. North Carolina established a strong, independent position, Merritt said, noting his office has the latitude to track any state dollar down to the nonprofits and local government level.
By Mark Wineka