At a time when politics have created sharp divides among people and between people and its government, elected officials should be getting back to basics and remembering their roots.
N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood recently visited a small gathering of Lake Norman Lions Club members to update them on all the latest happenings in Raleigh. A lot has happened in the five years since her last visit with them, she said — most notably: a pandemic.
Lion Mike Sabbagh leaned over and whispered: “Can you believe she drove all the way from Raleigh just to talk to us?”
The group of Lions numbered no more than 20 with a few guests, including a visiting member of the 70-year-old Sussex, England Lions Club. It didn’t seem to matter to Wood if 20 people — or 2,000 — were in the room; she gave an impassioned, informative update on various performance audits her office has undertaken, ranging from public corruption to the state lagging on issuing unemployment checks during the Covid shutdown.
When Wood was first elected in 2008, she became the state’s first-ever female auditor, and she is fiercely confident in her work: “I will never put out a report that is refutable,” she said. “Nobody’s going to be able to argue with me without looking foolish.”
Unlike what most may think when they hear “auditor,” Wood’s state auditors are not the Internal Revenue Service: they don’t audit people’s tax returns, she said, nor can they catch “every dime stolen, every dollar that’s out of place and every person that’s ever cheated on their timesheet.”
Instead, Wood is “the taxpayers’ watchdog,” overseeing the state’s $46 billion budget and ensuring that various state agencies are spending tax dollars appropriately. “Don’t ask me for more taxes if you’ve wasted the ones I’ve already given,” Wood quipped.
She broke down the state budget like this: $13 billion a year in state income taxes, $8 million in sales tax, $2 billion in gas tax, $1 billion in corporate income tax and $21billion in federal income taxes that are allocated back to the state in the form of grants. “The source of that funding? You and me,” she said.
Of Wood’s staff of 160, she said 130 are auditors and half are certified accountants. She currently has 30 vacancies that she said she plans to fill with “auditors that you would want auditing your tax dollars.”
Wood noted some of her office’s most recent performance audits, including unemployment payments during Covid and the quality of online courses offered by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI). She also spoke about her recent audit that exposed public corruption in the Town of Spring Lake.
Wood’s recent performance audit of the Division of Employment Security revealed that the agency failed to timely distribute $438 million in initial payments during Covid shutdowns, from late 2020 to early 2021, when the state’s unemployment rate reached 13.5 percent.
The government standard was for initial unemployment payments to be sent to recipients within 14-21 days — people get laid off, but the bills keep coming, Wood said — but $438 million was running late being distributed, by anywhere from two months to 365 days.
“We have an economic downturn every five-and-a-half years, and sometimes we really feel it, like in 2008, 2009, 2010,” Wood said. “The Division of Employment Security had done nothing to get ready for the next one. We were not prepared.”
Wood also conducted a recent performance audit of 131 online courses offered by a state-funded virtual school through DPI. “These courses were meant for middle school and high school students who are gifted and plan to go to college, but they can’t find these courses in their school,” Wood said, adding that she hired 11 people with Ph.Ds to initially review 12 of the 131 courses to see if they met the promised course content as well as state standards for rigor.
The audit concluded that “eight out of 12 courses did not have the course content they were supposed to have,” Wood said, “and 11 out of 12 did not meet the rigor standard that DPI said it did.”
Wood’s recent audit of the Town of Spring Lake turned up evidence of financial wrongdoing by public officials, including $474,000 embezzled by the town’s former accounting technician, who was eventually sentenced to four years in prison.
Wood said for three years the town had not submitted a mandatory annual audit to the Local Government Commission. She said legislation is currently being considered that would withhold state taxes from counties, cities and/or school boards that fail to submit annual audits.
Lake Norman Lions Club
Lions Clubs International is the world’s largest service club organization, with more than 1.4 million members in approximately 46,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas around the world. The Lake Norman Lions Club meets the third Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the group’s clubhouse at 273 McKendree Road, west of Mooresville.
The Lake Norman Lions Club recently raised $21,000 in its 29th annual reverse raffle and silent auction fundraiser to support N.C. Lions organizations for the blind and deaf, along with local charities, schools and families in need.
Of 250 tickets sold in the raffle, Art Sabates — who bought a ticket from his neighbor, the Lions’ Mike Sabbagh — held the winning ticket for a grand prize of $10,000. Sabates returned $5,000 to Lake Norman Lions Club, noting that his dad was a Lion and “Lions do good things.”
Note from admin: The results of the Lion Club’s raffle were posted earlier on our Facebook page, where we frequently share information about Mooresville/Lake Norman. Be sure to follow us on Facebook for brief news updates and upcoming events!