Port: State auditor hits Williston school district with a $131,600 bill for a one-year audit

Complaints about the costs state Auditor Josh Gallion has been billing local governments for are central to the criticism of his job performance.

North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, in Bismarck.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

MINOT, N.D. — Back on Feb. 1, state Auditor Josh Gallion's office released a report about the Williston School District "for the year ended June 30, 2021."

Now, a bit more than a month later, local officials are raising eyebrows about the bill for reviewing just one year of financials, which has come in at a whopping $131,600.

The auditor's relationship with the Legislature, and many of the government entities he audits, has been tinged with acrimony in recent years, culminating in a recently published op-ed which saw Gallion ripping the Legislature as "corrupt" and accusing lawmakers of trying to undermine his office. Yet among the many complaints about Gallion's performance in office is the burgeoning costs of audits that are creating a sense of sticker shock with local and state officials who must ask taxpayers to pony up.

The legislation Gallion was reacting to when he accused lawmakers of corruption, House Bill 1508 , introduced by Republican Rep. Emily O'Brien of Grand Forks, sought to put a cap on those costs. O'Brien has told me that the legislation was inspired, in no small part, by complaints from local officials who feel blindsided by big bills.

The executive director of the Killdeer Area Ambulance Service told me that their bill from Gallion forced them to put one of their ambulances in hawk, and lay off staff to the point where their life support certification was downgraded. The chairman of the Gwinner Fire District says they were shocked at how much their audit cost, given that they write just a few checks a month . Officials representing Griggs County and the city of Parshall are refusing to pay their bills from the auditor .


"The way things are trending, the tax policy that emerges from this Legislature may tilt more toward failed property tax buydowns than income tax relief."
"But I suspect that won't stop many self-styled 'conservatives' in this era of Republican politics, dominated by reactionary supporters of Donald Trump, from accusing him of liberalism."
The House Education Committee has added an amendment to an education bill that revives a school lunch proposal defeated by the Senate earlier this week.

But the audit of Williston School District No. 8 was much, much more than what any of those entities were billed.

In fairness to Gallion, the Williston audit, which was initiated through a citizen petition, uncovered many severe problems in the financials of the school district. Though, it must be said, these problems weren't entirely a surprise. Per the Williston Herald , they began to come to light last year as two Williston-area school districts merged to form School District No. 8, which was the entity audited by Gallion's office.

The issues found are real, and disappointing, and school district officials largely agreed with the findings in Gallion's report. But now they're obliged to ask their taxpayers to pay $131,600 and some locals say, privately, thanks to fear of retaliation from Gallion, who has shown a pronounced propensity toward combativeness, that it's too much.

Even for an audit with as many findings as this one.

In the face of criticism about the cost of his audits, Gallion has insisted that he's charging fair market rates. And state law does require that his office charge the entities being audited. But one local official after another has told me that the cost of audits has gone up significantly under Gallion, and that they're troubled by big invoices they must scramble to pay their own state government.

Gallion, meanwhile, seemingly considers a debate about these costs, and how to manage them, an attack on his office. "Corruption," to use his term.

O'Brien's bill might not be the right tact. As it was introduced, it would have capped audit charges at 1/1,000th of 1 percent of the entity's operating budget, which is absurdly low. Yet, clearly, O'Brien has identified a real problem, even if her offered solution was far from perfect out of the gate.

That's worthy of debate. As is Gallion's comportment in his duties. There is always going to be some friction between an auditor who is doing their job right and the people being audited. Finding other people's mistakes and failings isn't an easy job. But there's a way to do it without creating the sort of widespread antipathy Gallion has inspired.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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