Friday, July 31, 2009

Health Care Debate, a Denver Perspective

Missed in the national debate on national health care reform is the scandal of the on-going subsidy of Denver taxdollars to businesses which can’t or won’t provide health insurance for their workers. Let me explain how this tax shift takes place. After you hear the story, I hope it disturbs you as much as it does me.

In Denver, as the enforcement arm of the Prevailing Wage ordinance, the Denver Auditor's Office is aware that many contractors on Denver construction and other projects do not provide health insurance for their employees. And we regularly hear stories of what happens to many of these workers when injured or sick - they simply go to the Emergency Room at Denver Health. Denver taxpayers then pick up the health care cost for that company's workers. Do we even hear a thank you here? In the current debate on national health care, those who oppose reform don't mention this tax payer shift - this subsidized health care, this real version of socialized health care. Why? Because this tax shift is currently part of the unofficial but well-entrenched benefit system.

This ‘benefit’ has not been well documented nor adequately measured. In large part this is because it is difficult and time-intensive to quantify. However, Denver taxpayers have a right to know how much this health care tax shift in our city is costing them. That's transparency and accountability. This should be part of the debate, and I want to make sure the Denver taxpayers' voice is heard. So, while it will take some time to do so, we will be looking into this cost-shifting – unless of course the stars line up and the Congress moves on universal coverage and the question becomes moot. We could only hope.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ireland, Students and Economic Reality

For the past few days, I have been wending my way through Ireland with a dozen Regis University students. Though I don’t teach anymore (since my election as Auditor) I still enjoy my annual trip to Ireland with Regis students. What a joy it is and they are.

So far on this trip, we have heard the mystical Latin chants of Benedictines at Glenstal Abbey in County Tipperary. We have climbed the winding stairs to the top of James Joyce's Martello tower in Sandymount (South Dublin), the opening scene of Ulysses his remarkable novel. We lined up to behold the magnificent calligraphy of the ancient Book of Kells at Trinity Library. We climbed around the sad and mournful Kilmainham Jail, where so many patriots died in the 1916 rebellion against English rule. A few of us visited the Irish-Jewish Museum and thought of Robert and Ben Briscoe, the only father-son team to be Dublin's mayors in the thousand years they have been keeping track. We attended a rousing and energetic performance of "Riverdance," the step-dancing show, so beloved by my daughter, Meaghan Kathleen.But with all the joy and youthful enthusiasm I am able to share with these students, the weariness of the world is also still with us. Some one said that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold. Well, in my view, from here now, America has a bad cold but many other parts of the world have pneumonia. Like our own country, Ireland is in the throws of the world's economic downturn. The guard at the Book of Kells told me visitor attendance is down 10%. The newspapers report an 11% downturn in tourism; a key industry for Ireland experiencing hard times too. My cousin, Kitty Nyhan Caprani, owns a bed and breakfast, called the Chester Beatty Inn in Ashford, County Wicklow, south of Dublin. She told me that the recession is "biting their business badly." Thousands are out of work with no quick recovery in sight soon.However, there is some positive in the bleakness; Anna and Rory O'Conneely, venerable innkeepers here on the island of Inish Oirr, the most easterly island of the Aran chain off Galway Bay are holding steady. Rory told me that business is good but not down. One the Regis business students on the trip said, "outstanding product and remarkable personal attention and service." That's why loyal customers keep coming back from the Irish main land to this charming spot year after year even in these troubled times.Right now the students are up the road at the city cemetery gracefully and deft-fully sliding through an ancient church window. Legend says that if you can fit through the window of that ancient and sandy church, you will get into heaven. I was able to fit my head and right shoulder through the small window. Ahhh, well.

So I guess the lesson for me as Auditor on this trip is that we have to work hard to improve city financial processes to save all the tax dollars we can. And we have to continue building trust among city agencies and workers to give ourselves the confidence that indeed we can find our way out of this recession. I know we can make it through with the help of the windows of economic creativity which present themselves to us.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Audit Committee improves City accountability

When I was first elected Auditor, the mayor made all the appointments to the city's audit committee. I was pleased that he appointed me, the Auditor, to the audit committee. Otherwise, I would not have been able to serve on the committee at that time. He also appointed two cabinet members to serve as well. At my suggestion he appointed two independent auditors. Tim O'Brien, CPA, and former Colorado State Auditor was appointed at my suggestion. I had worked with Tim for his twelve years as State Auditor during my service on the Legislative Audit Committee while serving in our State Senate. The mayor also reappointed Bonney Lopez, CPA, to the committee. But the committee still lacked independence. With the exception of Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Lopez and me, the committee was completely made up of members of the mayor’s administration; it was virtually was made up of ‘members of the company’, so to speak. Anyone here remember ENRON?

With the passage of the charter changes addressing reforms to the Denver Auditor's Office, the committee truly became an independent audit committee. The charter language did not allow the mayor to appoint members of his cabinet or other city employees to the committee. The mayor, the city council and I each appoint two members to the committee but all of those appointments must come from outside the city government. As the Auditor, I serve as Audit committee chair. Under the General Standards section of the Government Accounting Standards which guides all of our audits at the city, independence is the first quality which must rule any auditor and audit process.

I am pleased to report that we now have a very strong and independent audit committee. The audit committee members vigorously question administration staff as to how audit recommendations will be implemented. And the audit committee schedules follow-up sessions with city agencies to see how the agency is doing on implementing the benchmarks set by a particular audit. Under the leadership of our new and independent audit committee, our outside Auditor BKD, noted marked improvement to city financial practices.

The most recent external audit of the city’s financial statements, overseen by the audit committee, and the accompanying management letter prepared by BKD that notes observations with regard to the city’s internal controls related to financial reporting has once again shown improvement over the previous year. This is a direct result of the role our independent audit committee plays.

Years of planning, negotiating and hard work have paid off with high marks for accountability for tax dollars thanks to the dedication and diligence of Denver's Independent Audit Committee.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Up the Republic

Every year on the Fourth of July, at around noon on our national Independence Day, the staff at Four Mile Historic Park in Southeast Denver honors me by asking me to lead the reading of the Declaration which Mr. Jefferson so finely crafted 233 years ago this year. “Happy Birthday, America. Let’s make sure King George can hear us,” I shouted. The assembly happily and loudly joined in on the chorus.

I enjoy this yearly communal reading as much as anything I do as Auditor for the people of Denver. Everyone else reading uses a microphone, and a Thomas Jefferson look alike, started us off on the microphone. He started the reading: “When in the course of Human events….” I however read without the microphone because I wanted the patriots gathered at the park for this reading to experience what it may have been like to hear the Declaration read pre-microphone. Everyone, from the municipal band stand to the outer park buildings, nodded, saying they could hear me just fine as I listed the main principles leading up to the grievances we had with the way King George III was treating our early colonial citizens. Then folks line up to read the crimes of King George from their own pocket copies. They could not wait to be counted to stand for the Declaration, young and old. They read the strong active verbs with vigor: He has refused, forbidden and dissolved, obstructed, affected, combined, abdicated this or that. We all finally agreed that the King was, “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

We handed out about 100 copies of the Liberty Day copies of the Declaration, and then regular patriots came up to read a complaint or two against the King. “He has made Judges dependent on his will alone…” “Down with King George, down with tyranny, down with tyrants,” the crowd shouted much to the delight of all. Another youngster loudly and forcefully read: “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Sounds like another government I know. “Down with King George.” At the end of the reading, after the clear rational case against the King, I asked all present to rededicate themselves to this Declaration and pledge in their own way to give personal support of this great document. No royal titles here, thank you.

This may seem corny, but you can honor this document by reading it aloud, by studying the principles found in the declaration, by getting involved in your government. Only then can we guarantee that this government will be “…of, for and by the people.” If you would like a pocket copy of the Declaration and the constitution which you can keep over your heart like I do, please email me at and I will get you a copy. By way of symbolic dedication, sign your own copy as did those framers who signed for their lives and sacred honor. “Fellow patriots, let’s let the old King and any tyrant hear it: “Up with the Republic”