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Auditing the State Comptroller Candidates

Joanne S. Barry

This November, New Yorkers have the opportunity to participate in one of the state's most important elections—that of New York State comptroller. With sole control of the state's $125 billion retirement fund and oversight of a $12.6 billion payroll at stake, the comptroller's race should be one of the most closely watched elections in the state, especially in this economic climate. Unfortunately, that probably won't be the case. In a recent poll of registered New York voters by the Poughkeepsie-based Marist Institute of Public Opinion, 28% of those surveyed either didn't know who the state comptroller is or were unsure how to rate him.

Democrat Thomas P. DiNapoli is seeking to retain his post against three challengers in November, including Republican Harry Wilson, a former hedge fund manager from Westchester; Green Party candidate Julia Willebrand, a professor and activist from Manhattan; and Libertarian John Gaetani, a Glenville accountant.

One of these individuals will be the sole trustee of the state's pension fund, which covers 1 million workers and retirees, making it one of the largest institutional investors in the world. A 2008 Pew Center on the States report found that New York was one of only four states with a fully funded pension fund—but that was two years ago. In early September, DiNapoli said the state's pension plan may report assets equal to 94% of liabilities by March 2011, according to Bloomberg News. He also announced that mandatory municipal pension contribution rates will rise from an average of 11.9% to 16.3% to compensate for the fund losing value. Police and firefighter contribution rates will increase from an average of 18.2% to 21.6%. The health of the state pension fund affects the financial condition of every local government. If municipalities can't meet their pension obligations, they could raise taxes, cut services, or further increase the employee contribution rate. The decisions the state comptroller makes for the pension fund affects every New York tax-payer—and every voter in this election.

The comptroller is also responsible for maintaining the state's accounting system and administering the state's $12.6 billion payroll. In this capacity, the next comptroller could propose reforms to curb pension padding among public workers. Analysis by the state attorney general's office found that 28 out of the 50 public employers studied exhibited patterns of pension padding, or the practice of working more overtime in the period before retirement to deliver a boost to pensions, which are calculated from total earnings. The state's ballooning pension payments are an increasing burden to taxpayers. Common Retirement Fund pension payments to retirees increased from $3.5 billion in 1999 to more than $7.3 billion in 2009. The next state comptroller will weigh in on any proposed reforms.

The comptroller is both CFO and auditor, overseeing the finances of local governments; conducting audits of the operations of state agencies, public benefit corporations, and public authorities; maintaining the state's accounting system and payroll; managing the state's assets; and issuing debt. Above all else, what should resonate with CPAs is that the state comptroller's office, which counts CPAs among its 2,600 employees, is responsible for ensuring that “taxpayers' money is being used effectively and efficiently to promote the common good.”

CPAs are familiar with the comptroller's role in conducting audits of state agencies and public benefit corporations—many even work with the office directly. The NYSSCPA has a long-standing partnership with the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) and most recently has worked with the office on several special projects, including the 2005 “five-point plan” for school district accountability reform, which included passage of a new law that enhanced the effectiveness of audits and increased financial oversight of school boards. OSC staff members have been a regular presence at the NYSSCPA's Public Schools Committee meetings, where comptroller's office staff have discussed the OSC's latest district audit findings with committee members. The OSC also reached out to the NYSSCPA for help with implementing rules intended to provide fiscal oversight and create transparency in fire districts' length of service awards programs. By continuing to work closely with the comptroller's office on projects such as these, CPAs can help steer the state in the right direction, even if they are not in an elected position.

With so many important duties, the comptroller's role is one that CPAs are uniquely positioned to understand and appreciate. Regardless of the candidate you support, I hope you will join me in helping to educate your fellow New Yorkers about the extremely important duties and responsibilities of this particular office. It is not only your obligation to educate others about the role of our state comptroller; it is also your obligation to educate yourself on the qualifications of each candidate. A good comptroller will be aggressive enough to drive reforms that will protect the public, but a great comptroller will also have the financial expertise to meet the obligations that come with being New York State's CFO.

Joanne S. Barry. Publisher. The CPA Journal, Executive Director, NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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