Public Workforce

California’s Money-Saving MVP

If finding ways to save money for a cash-starved state wasn’t enough, California’s Auditor Elaine Howle is adding the task of setting up a new redistricting commission to her to-do list.
by | December 2011
 

For someone who wanted to be an athletic director, Elaine Howle is a pretty good auditor.

California’s auditor has been quietly saving the state money for years. As a result, her office is being given all manner of new responsibilities. And it’s become one of the few agencies in Sacramento that’s still growing.

Howle’s office was tasked by ballot initiative with setting up the state’s new redistricting commission. This fall, the Legislature gave the auditor greater authority to look into municipal finances.

City and county finances are already overseen, to a limited extent, by the state controller and treasurer. But legislators are hoping the auditor will be able to spot problems before they grow into a full-blown scandal, as happened in the Southern California city of Bell, where several former officials have been charged with raiding the treasury to boost their own pay.

“The fact that she’s very low-profile may be at the root of her success,” says Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, a research group. “People feel the work may be done for substance’s sake, rather than seeking headlines.”

Like any good auditor, Howle is all about substance. Her office hasn’t reshaped Sacramento, but it’s come up with plenty of ideas for saving a few million dollars here and there -- by ending leases on unneeded space for the Department of Corrections, for example, or revamping the way nursing home inspections are conducted. When Gov. Jerry Brown took office earlier this year, he asked Howle for her ideas on how to save much more.

Howle has worked for the auditor’s office for 28 years, after giving up her earlier dreams of going into sports management. (She took over the top spot back in 2000.) She says she’s flattered by the additional attention and responsibility her office is getting. But she’s wary about taking on more work. Setting up the redistricting panel was a huge distraction. Taking a look at the books of many of California’s hundreds of cities, counties and special districts could mean much more attention diverted from watchdogging state agencies.

She knew it was a long shot in this budget environment, but Howle went to leaders of the Legislature and told them that if they want her to take on additional responsibilities, she’s going to need more resources. The result was that her staff of 100 auditors is set to increase by 40 or 50 percent over the next three years. “I was able to give the Legislature concrete examples of our work, identifying areas where the state could save money,” she says.

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