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Many people will end up paying the price for widespread abuse in the handling of at least $3.5 million in funds at the Timpanogos Community Mental Health Center.

The losers include mental health clients needing but not receiving care in Utah, Summit, and Wasatch counties; agencies that should have detected, but did not pick up the financial irregularities; and Utah taxpayers.Legislative Auditor-General Wayne Welsh told legislators this week that financial irregularities plaguing the center are some of the most serious and widespread that he has ever seen.

The legislative-auditor general's report shows that the county mental health administrators were being paid an average of four times for the same type of work. Other lavish payments also were made.

This is particularly upsetting because so many people badly need mental health services and funding has not been available.

Some officials of the center resigned after an audit of the center. The Utah attorney general's office has launched a criminal investigation into the center's operations.

The entire center operation smacks of loose management, lack of financial controls, and failure of other agencies or authorities to properly supervise.

The mental health commissioners responsible for the center clearly did not take the necessary time to delve into center operations. Auditors say they often approved, without knowing or discussing, center budget requests.

The audit was requested by the Legislative Audit Subcommittee. There also are reports that state Social Service officials and center staff members had raised questions about the center's operations during and after the 1988 egislative session.

Problems involving the center which receives funds from federal, state and county agencies and patient fees apparently were not uncovered sooner because they escaped the scrutiny of officials or agencies on three different levels.

They include commissioners from the three counties who comprise the center's three-member Mental Health Authority, the independent, accounting firm that was hired to perform audits, and the Utah Division of Mental Health. However, the state division has more responsibility for program than for fiscal audits.

One wonders how such flagrant abuses could slip past so many people or agencies. The problem seems to lie in the fact each thought other groups were watching.

That's a problem often inherent with shared responsibility. It points up the need for more clear definitions of who is ultimately responsible for keeping watch over public funds.

Auditors say they believe they have accounted for the majority of the misused funds. But the audit included a check on only eight employees. The center has 90 employees, nearly all of whom hold a variety of contracts for work at the center. The employees hold about 600 contracts.

One outgrowth of the audit is that the Utah Department of Social Services will begin to conduct its own detailed audits. And all public and private entities that contract with the department will be subject to detailed expenditure audits.

Unfortunately, the investigation surrounding the Timpanogos Center has cast a bad light on the work of innocent Timpanogos Center employees who are trying to continue serving the public. It also hurts the image of employees at 10 other Utah mental health centers, where safeguards are reportedly in place to prevent similar problems.