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Rawlings-Blake: Why audit ‘broken system’?

Ten days before public hearings are to be announced on calls for auditing the city’s Finance Department, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake upped the ante in the war of words at City Hall over the proposed scrutiny.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says with new procedures in place, there’s nothing to be gained with an audit of the previous tax collection system.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says with new procedures in place, there’s nothing to be gained with an audit of the previous tax collection system.

The mayor reiterated what she had said on Monday at a news conference: New reforms in place to halt chronic errors in property tax calculation should be given a chance to work.

“Many errors originated as far back as 10 years ago, before I became mayor,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “We immediately realized errors were occurring, and rather than let another 10 years go by, we stepped up to make big reforms.

“Even with these reforms, some have suggested that an audit would do more to inspire public confidence. I’m not opposed to audits. … I simply question the wisdom of performing an audit now, when audits were being conducted over the previous 10 years and this problem was still not fixed. An audit of a broken system will not tell the taxpayers anything that they don’t already know.”

Earlier in the week, the city’s finance director, Harry Black, blamed a series of miscalculations of property tax bills on “too many hands” that had “touched the process” of tax collection.

A new Billing Integrity Unit has been established by the department, which also worked with state taxation and assessment officials to help calculate the city’s tax bills. Black said the unit identified more than 1,300 errors in 2013 and that the new reforms would need until March 2014 to become fully established.

“It doesn’t inspire public confidence to do the same thing we’ve always done when we know that it didn’t work,” the mayor’s statement also said.

“What inspires public confidence is fixing the problem — and by most accounts, we’ve done more than any previous administration to get results for the city on this issue.”

But two resolutions introduced before the City Council on Monday — and endorsed by all 14 members — call for an audit of past practices as well as one of the new Billing Integrity Unit.

Hearings on those bills will be announced when the council meets again on Oct. 21.

City Comptroller Joan Pratt said yesterday she disagreed with the mayor’s stance to hold off on auditing the department.

Her office, an independent city agency, would perform the audit of the Finance Department. Pratt said she did not know how much the city has failed to collect because of errors.

“I disagree with the mayor that a ‘broken system’ would not tell taxpayers anything,” Pratt said Wednesday. “An independent audit now of this broken system would identify weaknesses in the system’s internal controls, provide corrective recommendations and identify lost revenues that may be recouped by the city.”

Such work, she added, would be presented to the Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel, and encourage transparency in the Rawlings-Blake administration, one of the mayor’s announced objectives after she took over the office in February 2010.

“Not only does an audit inspire public confidence, but it provides an independent and objective assessment,” Pratt said. “You can’t audit yourself.”