Coastal Commission Assures California It’s Improving

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CN) – The California Coastal Commission has assured the state it has begun implementing recommendations in the state’s finance audit late last year that found accounting troubles at the agency.

Commission staff said at a Wednesday meeting that they will institute all the recommendations in the Dec. 30, 2016 report by the Office of State Audits and Evaluations Department of Finance and have already begun.

The Department of Finance’s “non-audit review” found woeful deficiencies in the Coastal Commission’s billing and collecting practices, which lacked firm deadlines for collecting $2.7 million in reimbursements from other agencies the commission receives yearly.

The review was ordered last year after the commission requested a General Fund loan for $1.46 million when it was unable to make payroll and rent before the new fiscal year kicked in.

Because the commission requested a significant loan and there were “difficulties” in getting reimbursement and expenditure information from the commission, the Department of Finance ordered the report, on the commission’s dime.

The commission must pay up to $300,000 for the report.

The commission blamed that unexpected expenditure for tightening this year’s budget even further.

On Wednesday, commissioners approved canceling their April meeting scheduled for the North Central Coast, which will save it $38,000. Staff said they are looking into holding two-day rather than regularly scheduled three-day meetings this year to cut costs.

The commission’s 2015-2016 budget was $22.8 million. The Coastal Commission is tasked with enforcing the Coastal Act, which regulates development on the state’s 840-mile-long coast.

At its January meeting, commissioners and staff blamed many of their accounting troubles on their tight budget and inability to hire as many staff members as they need to keep up with billing and collections.

Commission Chief Deputy Director Susan Hansch reiterated that point at the Wednesday meeting in Newport Beach, telling commissioners they’ve had a hard time in recent years recruiting accounting staff because of the low pay for the civil service position.

Unlike federal agencies, Hansch said, the state does not have geographic pay differences for state employees and that’s hurt the commission’s recruitment efforts, and that of its sister agencies.

The Coastal Commission is headquartered in notoriously expensive San Francisco, generally ranked as the most-expensive or second priciest U.S. city, with New York City.

“It’s very clear it’s becoming a statewide issue,” Hansch said.

In a draft corrective action plan available on the commission website, the agency said addressing the Department of Finance’s recommendations is “a very high priority for staff.”

Some of the “planned actions” hinge on getting more staff members once the new fiscal year – and budget – kicks in this summer.

The commission employs four accounting staff members, Hansch said.

Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders questioned the staff’s plan for billing, which states: “Monthly billing is not always the most efficient use of time to submit invoices with little to no billing in return.”

“We need to set a date certain for billing,” Turnbull-Sanders said. “To say it’s not efficient does not seem to set forth a set schedule for billing.”

Hansch said billing depends on the contracts the commission has with other agencies, which vary from monthly to quarterly billing.

The commission plans to centralize billing and collections within the accounting unit, as recommended by the audit.

Noticeably absent from the meeting Wednesday was Commissioner Martha McClure, who was quite vocal at the January meeting about the seriousness of the non-audit review and called the commission’s response to it “a bit weak.”

McClure and Commissioner Carole Groom formed a subcommittee after the January meeting to give input when the staff created its action plan.

Groom said Wednesday there “has been absolute openness” and at least half of the recommendations have already been implemented.

Commissioner Mary Shallenberger thanked the staff for their hard work, noting that she has communicated with some staff members while they were on vacation, and ensured that work got done and deadlines were met.

“We are understaffed. If people take time off, their work doesn’t get done when they’re gone. This is a terrible Catch-22 we find ourselves in and the core reason is we are under budgeted and understaffed. I hope in the future our budget will grow,” Shallenberger said.

Commission staff must submit a final corrective plan by March 1. The commission is expected to give a progress report in September.