- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

The District's work force apparently cannot cut it. In all fairness, that is about the only conclusion one can reach after learning of a new audit on payroll practices, complaints from school employees and others who went weeks without getting paid and lame excuses from the D.C. Council and promises from the mayor's office to do better.More than 400 temporary workers, including welfare-to-work trainees and school counselors, were not paid on time this summer. Some temporary workers, including those working in the recreation department, quit because they did not get paid. Teachers, school bus drivers, counselors and others had payroll problems, too, with direct deposits, incorrect pay and no checks at all which, of course, is inexcusable.

Late paychecks are not the only problem, however. An ongoing audit proves the problem has more to do with a slovenly work force than the computer problem originally suggested by top officials. For instance, checks to some welfare trainees and summer workers were late because payroll clerks did not process time sheets some of them dating as far back as spring. A welfare trainee who spoke with The Washington Post said, "If they are not professional enough to do the job, why are they getting paid?"

Well, that depends on who answers the question. Council member Kathy Patterson, chairman of government operations, which includes procurement, blamed a "dysfunctional system." Essentially that means there are numerous reforms in place but not much oversight to ensure they are being carried out. (A new report by the District's inspector general confirms this.) Mrs. Patterson's counterpart on the mayor's side of the reform equation, City Administrator Norman Dong, told The Post every worker should get paid, and that accountability goes straight to the agency heads. Notice neither he nor Mrs. Patterson accepts any responsibility?

Holding everyone who gets a paycheck from D.C. government accountable for waste, fraud, abuse and corruption, including elected and appointed officials, is practically unheard of in the District, where tax dollars are siphoned out of the coffers quicker than you can say parking ticket. As a matter of fact, it appears as though elected officials in particular have been less concerned with such egregious matters because the city has been flush with huge surpluses in recent years.

The payroll mess is likely to become worse in the fall after hundreds of new teachers, recreation workers, bus drivers and custodial workers are hired and the names of hundreds of others are taken off the city's payrolls. Voters may start wondering whether Mrs. Patterson's is one of those names because a "dysfunctional system" of oversight is certainly a culprit. The council needs to understand that routine and rigorous oversight hearings are essential to reforming the status quo.

By the same token, Mr. Dong seems to have forgotten that he is the mayor's chief cook and bottle-washer, and that as such he is as much to blame as anyone else. After all, those disgruntled workers can surely bet that Mr. Dong was not shortchanged on his own paycheck.

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