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New Mexico seniors agency disputes auditor’s claim it misspent funds

August 26, 2018

The state auditor says the agency that handles much of the funding for seniors services around New Mexico improperly spent money on employee bonuses, parties, flowers for funerals, meals — alcohol included — and more.

The agency maintains it has not misspent public funds.

Still, the audit comes amid mounting scrutiny of the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District. An audit earlier this year, for example, found nearly $1 million in expenses unaccounted for and about $200,000 in fiber optic cable missing from a federally funded project the organization had undertaken to expand broadband access to communities around the area.

Auditors say their latest review turned up $118,395 in spending that was either not allowed, not backed up by documentation or wasteful.

That includes meals, travel expenditures, a staff retreat at an Albuquerque boutique hotel as well as an outing to an entertainment venue that offers video games and more, including laser tag, according to the state auditor’s report.

Executive director Tim Armer said expenses such as alcohol were not charged to public funds.

And he said the agency has already resolved or is addressing other issues, such as a $336,000 discrepancy in administrative costs.

“None of the expenses noted in the [Office of the State Auditor] letter affected services to seniors and were either not paid for out of grant funds or were appropriate expenses per federal regulations,” the agency said in a response to the audit.

The “unallowed” spending also included nearly $58,000 in bonus pay for more than two dozen employees that auditors described as appropriate but doled out without proper policies in place.

“Our analysis of the incentive pay is that there is a business purpose to the disbursements and that they were distributed in a broad manner to employees and not to top management,” the audit said. “There is no apparent indication of fraud, waste or abuse.”

But the agency should have had an incentive pay plan in place, which it did not, the audit added.

In announcing the results of the audit, State Auditor Wayne Johnson described it all as “a reckless disregard for public funds at a time when nearly three-quarters of a million dollars were cut state-wide from senior services.”

He also said, “The state financial environment and climate where this spending took place makes this all the more stunning.”

The audit also raised concerns about oversight, finding that the district’s finance director attended a total of three out of 31 board or governing committee meetings it reviewed, and that other policies should be in place or strengthened.

Chaired by state Rep. Jim Trujillo, a Democrat from Santa Fe, the agency includes the Non-Metro Agency on Aging, which is responsible for administering elder services in 32 of the state’s 33 counties through about 60 different service providers reaching more than 72,000 seniors.

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