Agriculture department has weak oversight, ‘control issues,’ audit finds

A recent audit found one state agency lacks a “culture of control” that led to mistakes such as an employee getting reimbursed $7,400 in mileage for travel in a state-owned vehicle.

The Utah Department of Agriculture has gone through four commissioners in five years, Jesse Martinson, senior supervisor of the Legislature-ordered audit, told lawmakers during an interim meeting this week.

“One thing that we are concerned about as we did the audit work is what seems to be kind of a history of oversight weaknesses and control issues at the department,” said audit manager Benjamin Buys.

“We feel like this is an issue that's been ongoing for many years,” he said, noting that Commissioner Craig Buttars recently took the helm after being appointed by Gov. Spencer Cox. Before that, Buttars served as county executive for Cache County for six years.

Buttars replaces Logan Wilde, who took the post after the department's former commissioner, Kerry Gibson, resigned to run for Utah's 1st Congressional District, and was later audited for “improper” travel expenses, bonuses and other allegations of misuse of public funds.

Audit finds ‘improper’ travel expenses, bonuses under Utah’s former agriculture boss

In the case of the employee getting thousands in mileage reimbursement funds, Martinson said the employee paid back the money after the error was identified.

But the incident is one example of a lack of oversight and control of state vehicles, the auditor said.

After the employee signed and submitted a mileage reimbursement — despite reimbursement only being available for travel in personal vehicles — approval processes were bypassed as the employee's supervisor did not sign off on it, and the division director delegated its approval to a subordinate who “stamped the form” without the director’s review, Martinson said.

State-owned vehicles at the department are also getting underutilized despite a high price tag, he said.

The auditors used GPS data to analyze nine weeks of vehicle usage data from January to March 2021 and found that some vehicles in the department’s fleet were only used once during that period.

“Since the department has averaged nearly $1 million per year for state vehicles over the last five years, management needs to determine the correct number of vehicles to maximize taxpayer funds and to avoid having vehicles sitting idle,” Martinson said.

The audit also found that the department has “failed to fully comply with federal grant requirements. We found some employees appearing to charge excess time to two separate federal grants,” according to Martinson.

That has auditors worried the state could risk losing federal money this year. The Department of Agriculture plans to receive $8.37 million from the federal government in 2022 — 14% of the department's funding.

“These grants are for programs such as animal disease tracing, controlling invasive species, pesticide enforcement, and suppressing Mormon crickets and grasshoppers. (The department) should ensure that controls over grants are in place so that funding for these important programs is not put at risk,” auditors wrote in the report.

Auditors also believe the department doesn't understand how its programs are funded on a fee basis, and the fees administrators ask the Legislature to approve each year are based on incomplete information, according to Martinson.

Between 2016 and 2022, the department operated at a deficit that grew to $2.5 million, he said. But auditors believe the programs could instead be fully funded by fees.

Martinson said the regulatory services division of the department also needs to improve oversight, as violations often aren't being resolved.

“Two regulatory programs, retail food and weights and measures are not sufficiently holding establishments accountable for inspection violations. The retail food program does not track how many critical violations have been resolved,” Martinson said.

Critical violations include those that contribute to foodborne illnesses, including cooking, reheating, cooling, heating and sanitization controls. In 2020, inspectors conducted 1,334 routine inspections where they found at least one critical violation, and 457 of them did not receive follow-up inspections, according to Martinson.

Auditors recommended implementing policies for violation enforcement.

Buttars said the department is committed to solving the issues and has been working to do so since he took the position.

“I believe that some of these issues, we were not familiar with when they were brought to our attention but others were, and I do feel like there has been an effort in the department to make the auditors aware of some of the deficiencies that we have. We're well aware of them and we feel that many of them we've already taken steps to correct,” he said.

“Of course we see the high level of turnover at the top of the department, and that was certainly brought to my attention before I accepted this position. … But it’s an issue that I know there is the will to change there, and it is my commitment that with our other employees, I know we're all on the same team, we all look at this in the same way, and we all have the desire to make the corrections that are needed here,” Buttars added.