Hoffer emphasizes honesty, transparency in run for state auditor

MIDDLEBURY — Burlington Democrat Doug Hoffer knows that some Vermont politicians have looked at the state auditor’s job as a stepping stone to higher office.
Hoffer, 61, wants voters to know that he would be more than content to serve as auditor for the rest of his professional career.
“It’s the only job I am interested in,” Hoffer said. “I want it to be the last job I ever have.”
This is Hoffer’s second run for auditor. He was defeated in November 2010 by incumbent Republican state Auditor Tom Salmon, 109,248 tallies to 91,088. Salmon has decided not to run for re-election this November after six years in office. He was originally elected to the post in 2006 as a Democrat.
Hoffer this year faces competition from Derby Republican Vince Illuzzi, a longtime state senator representing Orleans County and the Essex County state’s attorney. Illuzzi was profiled in the Aug. 13 issue of the Addison Independent.
Hoffer moved to Vermont in 1988 to work for the City of Burlington’s Community & Economic Development Office under then-Mayor Bernie Sanders. He left City Hall in 1993 and has been a self-employed policy analyst for the past 19 years.
He said he became particularly well-versed with the functions of the state auditor’s office from 1995 to 2000. That’s when he worked on a contractual basis for then-state Auditor Ed Flanagan.
Hoffer believes he is up to the task of serving as auditor himself, in part because of what he said is a natural inquisitiveness and a penchant for not backing down until he gets answers.
“I have a talent for identifying and asking tough questions,” Hoffer said.
“I like to challenge conventional wisdom,” he added. “And I have a reputation for being a straight shooter.”
The auditor’s specific duties include conducting annual audits of the state’s financial statements; spearheading performance reviews of programs and institutions receiving state/taxpayer funds; and tracking the manner in which federal funds are being used by state government. The auditor presides over an in-house staff of around 15 workers. The office also hires outside consultants to do some of the auditing work.
If elected, Hoffer vowed to provide Vermonters with an aggressive, reliable accounting of how their state and federal tax dollars are spent — and do it with the greatest transparency possible. He said the auditor’s Web site would feature detailed information on budgets. And he wants to not only post the audit reports, but how much they actually cost to produce.
“Every audit, regardless of its size, should include the cost of that audit in staff time and resources,” Hoffer said. “That way, you can fairly weigh the costs and benefits.”
He added the auditor should also have a reasonable idea of the success of a discretionary audit before launching such an effort. Otherwise, investigative resources can be wasted.
“You can audit anything; nobody can stop you,” Hoffer said. “But when it comes down to making a choice, you had better have done some homework in advance. I think we can make better choices on which audits to pursue.”
Hoffer already has some audit priorities in mind should he be elected this November.
For example, he would like to scrutinize Vermont’s bidding process for state contracts. He believes the state doesn’t always get the best bang for its taxpayer dollar by going with the lowest bidder when that bid is submitted by an out-of-state company. He reasoned the state economy could get a bigger overall boost by picking a slightly higher-bidding Vermont company because of the resulting employment of local residents, who will in turn spend dollars locally.
“The whole point of the (auditor’s) office is to add value,” Hoffer said.
Specific audit ideas Hoffer is currently weighing would focus on:
•  Personal service contracts (for goods and services) that are put up for bid annually by the state.
“Those contracts have grown dramatically over the years; they are up to $300 million,” Hoffer said. “Part of that is just because the nature of government has grown; part of it is because we have outsourced here and there and we have lost hundreds of state jobs so other people are doing that work. Those contractors and vendors typically don’t receive the same kind of oversight, monitoring and supervision that state employees do. That’s not to suggest a problem with any particular case, but you don’t know until you begin the cycle of looking at those over time.”
•  Vermont Agency of Transportation contracts.
“Some of these contracts are very substantial — tens of millions of dollars,” Hoffer said. “I have no reason right now to believe there is a problem, but when you have contracts of this magnitude, periodically, I think at least one big contract a year should be audited.”
He said a vendor might double-bill, either intentionally or unintentionally, and an audit would be able to pick up on such an anomaly that might otherwise slip through the accounting cracks.
•  The state’s tax structure, and particularly the income tax.
“The question is, ‘Are we getting all the money we are due?’” Hoffer said.
He noted the Internal Revenue Service routinely reports on vast sums of money it believes some taxpayers are illegally sheltering, or just not paying.
“Even in a small state like Vermont, it might add up to millions and millions of dollars,” Hoffer said. “If you spend a few bucks and hire two or three additional people for (tax) compliance and enforcement, are you going to get back more than you are paying (for the new hires)? The answer in other states has been ‘Yes.’”
•  Vermont’s economic development loan and incentive initiatives, such as the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive program aimed at providing new and/or emerging businesses with assistance to grow.
“If we are not getting the bang for our buck from some of our economic policies, then it behooves us to acknowledge that and ask, ‘How can we better use those resources?’” Hoffer said.
He cited the example of eCorp English, a language software company that secured state loans and tax incentives in 2010 to open up a headquarters in Middlebury. The company failed in its launch and closed its doors two weeks ago.
“I am sorry it didn’t work out, but that one just smelled bad from day one,” Hoffer said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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