Can Salt Lake County's watchdog effectively watch itself?

Not if you believe a 31-page independent study of the County Auditor's Office presented Wednesday to the Salt Lake County Commission.The study, which the commission requested in May, recommends segregating certain duties of the auditor's office, along with the creation of an audit committee.

"The county auditor is responsible for auditing as well as managing the activities, including internal controls, of the Accounting, Tax and Budget divisions," the study says. "This inherent conflict of responsibilities does not provide the organizational independence necessary to objectively measure and challenge the management of the Accounting, Tax and Budget divisions."

Assuming Salt Lake County maintains its form of government, the study suggests forming a citizen audit committee that would direct the audit division now overseen by the county auditor's office.

The Accounting, Tax and Budget divisions would remain in the auditor's office, the study recommends.

"The recommendation for an independent auditing committee is an excellent idea," said Commissioner Mary Callaghan, adding that the performance study was long overdue.

Callaghan said an auditing committee could be formed almost immediately pending a commission vote.

Salt Lake County Auditor Craig Sorensen said he agreed with much of the study, performed by the local accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand.

But the current structure of the auditor's office is established by the Utah Legislature - and it works, Sorensen said. Stripping the auditor's office of the audit division, he added, simply isn't necessary.

"A system of checks and balances already exists in the county auditor's office," Sorensen said.

The county auditor, who has been in office for almost two decades, said his office opens its books each year to an independent auditing firm and undergoes annual reviews from the state auditor's office and the Government Financial Officers Association.

Sorensen added his office has enjoyed a AAA bond rating for more then a decade - an honor realized by only a handful of counties.

"This high level of achievement can only be attained by adherence to exceptionally high standards of performance and fiscal responsibility," wrote Sorensen in his response to the study.

Sorensen and his office welcome the formation of an audit committee, saying it would put pressure on all county officials to implement audit recommendations.

Beyond the segregation of responsibilities, the study suggested the audit division does not issue reports in a timely manner.

"For reports issued in 1996 and 1997, the average period from the creation of the preliminary report to the issuance of the final report was 168 days, with a high of 389," the study said. "Untimely report issuance increases auditee frustration, decreases management attention, and reduces the relevance of audit recommendations."

In his response, Sorensen wrote that he agreed with the concept of increased audit efficiency, adding an independent audit committee would be critical in speeding up the auditing process.

When commissioners decided last spring to conduct the study, a public vote to change the county's form of government was looming, prompting questions about future auditing duties in a executive/ council form.

The commission later voted to nix the change-in-government vote, but the study still includes auditing recommendation if the change ever occurs.