Is WSF misplacing millions every year?
June 11, 2008 · Updated 11:32 AM
"Bremerton mayoral candidate Rod Johnson claims Washington State Ferries (WSF) has lost millions of dollars in tolls collected at the booth. And the state's most powerful bean counter agrees.We have been reporting this issue as a problem since 1993, State Auditor Brian Sonntag said Monday. The ferry system can't even tell how much money they don't collect.Johnson said he objects to the WSF increasing fares by 22 percent when it won't address its longstanding accounting problems.Johnson said the ferries might have lost more than $100 million in unaccounted-for ferry tolls. Sonntag said the loss figure is at least a $1 million a year, but more likely 6 percent of all toll booth collections - an industry standard.I don't think that's acceptable and I don't think the taxpayers should either, Sonntag said.Sonntag called not being allowed to conduct a performance audit of WSF the most frustrating aspect of running his office, which oversees 2,700 entities.That's probably so, and for two reasons: We have pointed out the problem so many years in a row, and secondly, for the amount of money under discussion, Sonntag said.State Rep. Beverly Woods, a 23rd District Republican and veteran of the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, disagrees with Sonntag and Johnson on several points. She said the ferry system has undergone audits costing millions of dollars in the last 10 years, and none has pointed out money missing from toll booth collection points.Woods said records show Sonntag's office has audited WSF finances every year for a decade, at an average annual cost of $35,000.She also cited a $375,000 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee audit of WSF. Neither Johnson nor Sonntag knows where the missing money is, which is why they want a $300,000 performance audit that only the Legislature can direct the Auditor's Office to perform.Sonntag said he has asked nine consecutive legislative sessions to approve such an audit, with no success. Historically, I think there has been an institutional bias against legislating performance, Sonntag said.Johnson said the Legislature is against a performance audit because there is so much money that has been missing that if this cat got out of the bag and we allowed performance audits to occur - they've been asking for money for so long without accountability - people would no longer be so willing to allow tax increases, Johnson said.Sonntag said such an audit would cause a lot of political fallout, but it could also present a great opportunity to solve a problem.Neither Sonntag nor Johnson claims tickets takers are absconding with the money. Woods said the Legislature has taken steps to help the WSF. The transportation budget passed into law two weeks ago included $5.05 million to upgrade computer cash registers at toll booths.We have an archaic system, Woods said. They are '50s-style cash registers.That wouldn't appease Johnson, however. Even if they put in a brand-new cash register tomorrow, where did all that money go in the meantime? he asked.Woods said she doesn't know why Sonntag insists his office do WSF performance audits, although she speculated it might have political implications.Woods said the accounting firm of Booz, Allen and Hamilton was paid $1.3 million for a special performance audit of the ferry system. The firm's report led to the $5 million appropriation this year.Woods also said the federal government has audited the ferry system for the past decade at a total cost of $880,000.Johnson argues that the cost of audits is small compared to the money missing from toll collections. Johnson is asking for a rollback of current ferry prices.We get the oldest ferries, we get decreased services, Johnson said about Bremerton service. Basically, we get the least for our money. We really need to find that money before they ever come to us and ask us to increase the fares again. "