Town hall meeting series by State Auditor Rob Sand includes stop in Waukon

State Auditor in Waukon ... State of Iowa Auditor Rob Sand is currently conducting a series of town hall meetings in which he intends to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties to discuss the work he’s been doing since elected to the office in November of last year and assuming its duties at the beginning of this year. Sand held one of those town hall meetings Monday, September 30 in Waukon. Photo by Lissa Blake.

by Lissa Blake

Politics should be about doing good work, as often as possible.

That’s just one of the ideas that is motivating Decorah native and recently elected State of Iowa Auditor Rob Sand to travel to all of Iowa’s 99 counties to meet with taxpayers.

“It’s good for me to be able to hear what people are talking about, and it’s good for people to be able to poke their elected officials with a stick,” quipped Sand during a Monday, September 30 stop in Waukon.

Sand is the son of Dr. Kevin and Leslie Sand and a 2001 graduate of Decorah High School. He graduated from Brown University in 2005 and the University of Iowa School of Law in 2010. He was then hired in the office of the Iowa Attorney General, where he worked as an assistant attorney general until his election as State of Iowa Auditor last November.

When asked what motivated him to run for the office, he said, “Most of the stuff I was doing was financial crime. That office covers public corruption cases. While I was there I saw some things I wanted to see done differently. And I hit this point where I realized criminal prosecution is very dark, even when you get what you want.”

Sand said since taking office January 1 of this year, he has been proud of the fact he has been able to make good on a lot of his campaign promises.

“I felt it was important that we add some law enforcement professionals to the office,” he said, noting sometimes investigations can happen in a way that does not necessarily make them effective in a courtroom. “We’ve since hired two folks with backgrounds in law enforcement.”

In addition, Sand said he wanted his office to be able to make efficiency recommendations to public entities whenever possible. “I recently put together the PIE (Public Innovations and Efficiencies) initiative,” said Sand.

“We’ve compiled a checklist (I call a PIE chart) that every city and county can fill out to let us know about which basic money-saving practices they are doing. We then enter it into a system, so there is more transparency and people can see who is doing good government practice to save money,” he explained.

“Every year we’ll have a PIE contest to recognize cities and counties doing a good job. We will also encourage people to submit their ‘PIE recipes’ as a resource for people to network across the state regarding best practices. It’s just a good way to spread ideas, but it’s very much a work in progress. I’m sure we will learn a lot over the first few years, but I wanted to get started with it.”

Another of Sand’s promises was to create an auditor’s office that was nonpartisan in its leadership.

“Of the three people in charge, there is one Democrat, one Republican and one Independent. When it comes to decision making, it’s something everyone in the state of Iowa can trust. We’re trying to do things in a way that is fair to everyone,” he said.

Sand added since taking office, he has been looking closely at how to retain staff in his office, which employs approximately 100 people.

“We have a big turnover problem. Part of it is that the private sector of the audit world is using technology and adapting to the times, which has made jobs in the private sector look more enjoyable. This office hasn’t,”  he said.

Sand said he recently started something called “Better workplace, better work.”

“I’ve done a couple of things,” he explained. “One is to allow people to wear jeans every day of the week. Everyone is just told, if they have a meeting where they need to dress more professionally, to do that.”

Another innovation Sand has implemented is letting people who are fully trained work remotely if they would like to. “It used to be if you wanted to work outside the office, you needed a good reason. I’m just trying to treat everyone like adults,” he said.

In addition, Sand has tried to reduce the travel burden for his staff. “People in the auditor’s office spend up to one-third of their year in overnight travel. Instead of traveling somewhere and staying there to work on it, we’re letting them travel to get the materials they need and take them back home. This is reducing travel and travel expenses (to taxpayers) by at least 25 percent,” he said. “If we can reduce hotel spending, that lowers expenses for our clients as well.”

In addition, Sand said his office, housed in the Lucas Building in Des Moines, has ended some other leases it had in other State buildings and moved everyone into a central location. “It saves us money and also means some other state agency can use that space,” he said.

He also said he put a stop to the excessive printing and binding of audit reports. “We’ve saved one percent of our appropriation from the State, just by doing that. When we finish a report, we email a PDF to the entity. If they want to distribute copies, they can print them themselves,” he said. “This has saved lots of material and staff hours.”

Sand explained cities and counties usually hire someone to do an audit once a year and the state auditor’s office competes with the private sector for this work. “But we are more independent and we have a stronger drive to make sure we are representing the taxpayers,” he said.
Sand said the number of audit cases his office has handled has increased by 60 percent over the last five years, without an increase in appropriations. He said cities with populations under 2,000 have to have periodic examinations every eight years, which has increased his office’s workload.

Sand added the state’s Medicaid system also is an ongoing challenge. “There are 600,000 Iowans who qualify for Medicaid. That’s one out of five people,” he said. “This is something that somehow touches most people in the state and this state has really undergone a revolution (changing from a State-run organization to private Managed-Care Organizations - MCOs) in the way it’s been handled.”
“When former Governor Terry Branstad overhauled the state’s Medicaid program, he claimed it would save money, increase access and quality of care,” said Sand.
The first-year state auditor said in working with quadriplegics in this Medicaid realm, he has seen examples of where their care has actually fallen.
“That’s why we do compliance audits,” Sand explained. “I want to actually be helpful in this job … (By doing these audits) we hopefully will see things that work and things that don’t work, rather than saying ‘It’s all good or bad.’ I think compliance is a neat way to do that.”
He said because of some hiccups in the MCO system, he has heard from health care providers across the state who are having to take out lines of credit to continue helping people.

Sand added he has really enjoyed his first nine months in office and doing good things. “I’m enjoying trying to make the office work better for the whole state. It has been a much more impactful and positive experience,” he shared.

Sand stays in touch with the public via his Facebook page and a Facebook Live event called the Transparency Tuesday report at 4:45 p.m. each Tuesday. “If people have any questions, they are actually able to ask them,” he said. “The most common question I am asked is ‘What does the state auditor do?’ Facebook Live gives me a chance to say, ‘Here’s what I’ve been up to this week.’ And I think it’s a good way for folks to know what’s happening in at least one part of their state government.”

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