A state agency has questioned the financial accountability of the Shenandoah County Circuit Court in a recent audit, but Clerk of Circuit Court Sarona S. Irvin said in her response to the audit that her office has since fixed the problems cited in the report and also has developed a plan intended to correct and prevent future errors.
The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts looked at the circuit court’s performance for the period from Jan. 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018 and issued its report dated Dec. 14 to Irvin and Conrad A. Helsley, chairman of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors. The Auditor of Public Accounts sent copies of the audit to Chief Judge of the 26th Judicial Circuit Bruce D. Albertson, County Administrator Mary T. Price and officials with other state agencies.
“We noted the following matters involving internal control and its operation that has led or could lead to the loss of revenues, assets, or otherwise compromise the Clerk’s fiscal accountability,” the auditors state in the comments to management.
Irvin spoke by phone Thursday about the audit’s findings and the challenges her office faces in trying to tackle the court’s hundreds of state-mandated responsibilities. The 10 errors cited in the audit likely would not have happened if her office had enough employees, Irvin said.
The clerk said that some errors cited by the audit likely occurred during training for new employees. But Irvin blamed an inadequate number of employees for many of the other problems identified in the report.
Irvin submitted her office’s fiscal 2020 budget request this week to the county administration. The request was due Dec. 14, but the auditor conducted its study in the first two weeks of December, Irvin said. The clerk said she then spent time writing her reply to the audit and corrected some of the problems identified in the report. Around the same time, two employees had deaths in their families, and the clerk said she too, had family matters to attend to. The office doesn’t have enough employees when fully staffed, Irvin said.
“When everyone is dealing with life as is happening, then we’re really screwed,” Irvin said. “Every time I thought I was getting back to this budget, it just didn’t happen.”
The Virginia Compensation Board and Shenandoah County, through the annual budgets adopted by the Board of Supervisors, fund the clerk’s office.
“So I guess we’ll see what the Board of Supervisors do because the bottom line, for the three years I’ve been clerk, we’ve been working a lot of overtime and we’re not going to continue doing that because apparently we’re making ourselves look good enough to get by, but we’re still feeling the struggle within because we know we’re not up to power where we need to be,” Irvin said. “So I guess the citizens may be taking some of that brunt in the future depending on how long they have to wait or if things aren’t ready when they think they should be ... I don’t know what else to do, and if we keep making ourselves look good by busting our butts the way we are, then they’re never gonna give us anything.”
Irvin said it’s her understanding that the state might fund 2 percent increases for employees but likely would not include money to hire more people. Irvin said she always asks for funding in her budget request to pay for more employees.
“I’m not holding my breath on that one,” Irvin said.
The Board of Supervisors on several occasions has denied requests from Irvin and her predecessor, Denise Estep, to use funds already in the clerk’s budget to help fill empty positions. Irvin made such a request to supervisors in September but they rejected it.
The audit found that the clerk:
• Did not charge defendants in seven cases a total of $2,446 in court costs, and overcharged defendants $151 in two cases. The report states the clerk and her staff should correct the problems and “institute a more diligent system of review to minimize the likelihood of billing errors going undetected and collect court costs in accordance with Virginia code.”
• Did not disburse $1,244 in restitution and other liabilities as required. The clerk should disburse the amounts as noted and monitor and disburse liabilities every month as recommended by the financial accounting system user’s guide.
• Withheld $281 in tax refunds as of September 2018 that the office should have allocated to defendants’ accounts.
• Did not delete system access for a former employee for 23 months after the employee’s last day of work, potentially compromising the system’s integrity.
• Did not credit interest to a trust-fund account for four months nor did she properly reconcile her trust-fund accounts with bank balances. Such an error if left undetected can increase the loss of funds.
• Had not indexed and did not add images of the wills and other fiduciaries to the office’s indexing and imaging system for public view as required by state code.
• Failed to review the Department of Motor Vehicles Interface Status report generated by her accounting system, and did not report nine unpaid accounts for license suspension.
• Incorrectly placed seven accounts in administrative review status without understanding the impact it has on collection efforts. The clerk should update the accounts identified, then review and take appropriate and timely action.
• Had not posted the court’s official payment plan policy in her office or on the court’s website as required by the state code.
• Did not retain proper documentation for three of six attorney invoices tested.
Irvin states in a Jan. 8 letter to Auditor of Public Accounts Martha Mavredes that her office trained a new team of deputy clerks during the audit period. Errors can occur during training sessions, Irvin said.
“Moving forward, all of the cases which were flagged in the audit have either already been corrected, if not already paid in full, or will be corrected within the next 10 days,” Irvin states. “I will also be personally checking the new account listings on a regular basis to make sure the criminal staff are setting up cases timely and properly assessing court costs for criminal matters in accordance with the Code of Virginia.”
Irvin offered detailed explanations in response to the errors in disbursing liabilities, and she took responsibility for not being able to more closely oversee the process conducted by an accounting technician in training. The clerk also blamed turnover in the accounting technician position for the $281 tax refund not applied to a defendant’s account.
Irvin asked the auditor to delete the item pertaining to system access because the employee in question “was removed from our court to work at the General District Court in Virginia and all indicators on my end showed I had asked for her to be removed.” All other employees who left the office during the audit period were promptly removed from having access, Irvin stated.