Frances Bartlett

By Kevin Tankersley

Where does your local tax money go? County auditor explains process of making county budget

Sales tax, property tax, fines and fees — they all go through Frances Bartlett’s office. Bartlett is the McLennan County auditor, a position that isn’t much in the public eye. Her office doesn’t appraise property for tax purposes; that’s the McLennan County Appraisal District. But when property owners pay their taxes to the county or renew their license plates at the McLennan County Courthouse or at one of several field offices scattered around the county, that money goes through her office. She and her team of 14 look at every bill the county pays and every check the county receives.

Tasked with approving the legality and validity of all county disbursements as well as ensuring the county sticks to the budget set by the commissioners, Bartlett has worked in the auditor’s office for 14 years and has been the county auditor for about a year-and-a-half. She grew up in Axtell and attended schools there. She also went to McLennan Community College and earned an accounting degree from Baylor University. She and her husband, Jason — a school support specialist at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco — are the parents of 9-year-old Carly, a student at Live Oak Classical School. Carly’s colorful artwork adorns a whiteboard in her mother’s office on the basement level of the McLennan County Courthouse, an area going under a much-needed renovation, Bartlett said.

WACOAN: What does your office do?

Bartlett: Kind of going far back, the auditor’s office is set up by state statute, and it was started in 1905. The state knew that they needed oversight over all branches of government, including county government. So they created the auditor’s office to have eyes on county operations for the state.

The district judges actually are who appointed me. So you have commissioners court, like the governing board for the county. And then there’s us. We answer to the district judges, so we are literally an independent of commissioners court. That allows for checks and balances in county government.

The commissioners court sets the budget for the whole county. And they make all decisions. But just to keep us independent, to keep checks and balances, our budget is set by the district judges. We are county employees, just work a little bit different. We are here to maintain the integrity of the financial information for the county. Specifically, I am responsible for the validity and the legality of all cash disbursements from the county.

I have to approve all disbursements. Nothing can go without the auditor’s approval, but then it also requires commissioners court approval. Disbursement can’t leave without [both] of those. So again, there are checks and balances, and it works really well.

WACOAN: Any money that leaves the county’s coffers goes through you and is approved by the commissioners court.

Bartlett: Yes. And then, of course, we’re also tasked with making sure that the county adheres to the budget that they set. Commissioners court approves the budget each year, and we make sure that that is adhered to. But disbursements, that’s a big priority for us. Then also revenues that come in, that’s how we are kept running. We audit every revenue as well, any cash that comes into our doors.

We’re responsible for financial reporting for the county. We audit every field office that brings in money for the county, so that includes the tax office, the [justices of the peace], the sheriff’s office, adult probation, juvenile probation. We audit all of those to make sure that you know what came in was legally supposed to be collected, and then we follow that. Where does the money end up? Is it something we keep here and are able to use for county expenses, or is it something that goes somewhere else? Is it something we collected for the state or for another entity? We audit both sides of that.

Financial reporting is a big, big part of it as well.

WACOAN: So you don’t work with the public very much.

Bartlett: We do not. We are here to protect the public.

WACOAN: How do you go about managing the county budget? There are a lot of departments in McLennan County.

Bartlett: If a county exceeds 225,000 people, the county auditor is given the role of the budget officer. We pretty much help orchestrate that whole budget process in coming to a final budget. The court ultimately has all decision-making ability. We collect from every department their requests for the next year. We collect all that and then we work through those requests with the commissioners court. And then they ultimately approve the budget, and then that budget is what’s in our general ledger, in our accounting system. And we have a pretty robust system that allows us to keep track of each department’s budget, their line items and where they’re at. We don’t let them exceed the budget.

WACOAN: Do you make sure that a department doesn’t go over its budget, or is there someone in each department who does that?

Bartlett: That falls to us. Each department has a budget, and they’re given that budget at the beginning of the year. They’ll keep track of it internally to make sure that they’re on track for the year, but ultimately, that’s our responsibility. It ultimately falls on us to make sure that they adhere to that budget.

WACOAN: You said you manage all the money coming in. Besides taxes, what else generates funds for the county?

Bartlett: Property taxes make up about probably about 70%. That’s where we have the ability to adjust that number up or down for the needs for the next year. But the other revenues, big chunks would be sales tax and fines and fees.

So each office, for whatever service they are providing to the public is, again, by statute, allowed to collect some fines and fees for those services. That’s another really big piece of it. There are lots of small pieces, things like alcoholic beverage tax, bingo tax, grant reimbursements, interest earnings, vending machine commissions, a lot of little pieces.

WACOAN: Is the county taking a financial hit with the current pandemic?

Bartlett: Our sales tax, which affects us and the city as well, we have not seen a significant drop at all. It has not really affected our sales tax very much, which is good, because that is a big chunk of our budget.

But definitely, the alcoholic beverage tax for sure, and bingo tax for sure. But because those aren’t as large of a piece of our budget, we’re not going to take as big of a hit. We have other things to absorb those decreases there.

WACOAN: How do we get the amount we owe on our tax bill every year. Is that a valid question for your office?

Bartlett: Well, I can help answer it. The appraisal district sets the appraised value of your property. And then each local entity [such as schools, the city and the county] sets the tax rate. And then the tax assessor-collector — our tax assessor-collector is Randy Riggs. He’s actually in this building upstairs on the first floor — he takes those two pieces, and they put those together. And so that statement that you get electronically or in the mail, that’s put together by his office.

They have a system of course that marries those two things. It tells you, OK, you live in Waco ISD and McLennan County, and here’s the MCC portion, all those things. They put that together into that one bill.

We audit the cash flow into that office. The largest amount of money that goes through any office goes to the tax office, but that auditor looks at it as a whole and then may pick some samples and make sure that things line up. And then if something doesn’t, she keeps digging.

WACOAN: So your office is not involved in setting tax rates or anything like that.

Bartlett: We just help kind of facilitate that process, laying it all out and doing calculations, and I’m just helping [the county] kind of walk through that process, putting the budget together. And then based on the budget, we would know how much revenue we need to fund that budget, helping them calculate what the rate is that’s needed. But ultimately, the commissioners court makes that decision to set that tax rate.

WACOAN: Where are you in the budget year?

Bartlett: Our fiscal year is October 1 through September 30. We filed the proposed budget for this next year that will start October 1. We filed it July 28. We worked through the month of July, the commissioners court did, and we assisted with that. We come up with the proposed budget, and that’s available for the public to inspect and review and speak on if they so choose to. And then we will adopt the budget and the tax rate on August 25.

WACOAN: How does the proposed budget compare with last year’s budget?

Bartlett: The court this year worked really hard to try to keep the budget as close to last year’s as possible. Our proposed budget for the 20-21 year is roughly about $2 million more than it was last year. I think it comes up to like 1.8% [increase]. That includes a 1% [cost of living adjustment] for county employees, an increase on salaries countywide. And then there were some addition of some new positions that were needed in certain departments.

They tried to keep the expenditures as close as possible to last year. Elected officials and department heads worked hard to keep those budgets down as much as possible. The court sets [the county tax rate] and we kind of helped. ‘OK, here’s the budget, let’s work through the budget. Now what funds do we have that are unassigned funds that are sitting in our fund balance? And here’s our budget. What additional money do we need and what money do we need to come from property taxes?’

So we help plug all that together, and the court always has a goal to keep an amount in fund balance. Our goal is 33% of expenditures. Each year going forward, we’ve set the budget, we have taxes coming in, but we’re budgeting to end with that ending fund balance to move into next year of 33%. And they’ve met that goal. All those pieces come together and then where we’re able to plug in that tax rate that’s needed.

WACOAN: Do you know the appraised value of property in McLennan County?

Bartlett: I think it’s a little less than $18 billion. [Editor’s note: According to an article in Waco-Tribune Herald July 28, the appraised value of property in McLennan County is just over $19 billion.]

WACOAN: So you start with $18 billion of appraised property. Then you figure out how much money you need in your budget for the next year, and then figure out the tax rate from there? Is that right?

Bartlett: Yes. Most years, the court will look at something like that and be like, ‘No. We need to cut this budget. We don’t want to have to increase taxes.’ And then you can adjust those pieces. You can adjust the tax rate, you can adjust the budget, of course, they can cut the budget or increase the budget.

WACOAN: How long have you worked in the auditor’s office?

Bartlett: I’ve been here for 14 years.

WACOAN: How has the office changed since you have been here?

Bartlett: We’ve really moved toward making things more efficient each year, more efficient for everyone and not just us, for the offices that we work with.

A lot of that has to do with some of the technology that we have access to that we didn’t used to. Things moving to an electronic format rather than paper-based. That is what we strive for, is to make things more efficient but never lowering the quality of our work in regards to keeping an eye on the financial books and transactions and making sure that every piece is audited and looked at, but also that it’s transparent.

That also is one move we’ve made. We’ve worked really hard to make the budget document transparent and other things that go out that a citizen can actually pick up and look at and be like, ‘Oh, yes. I can read the budget for the sheriff’s office and know exactly what they’re spending.’ And that’s very, very, very important.

WACOAN: Why is that so important?

Bartlett: Like I said, we are primarily funded by property taxes. And so the way the state has the whole system set up is that, here’s a budget and also a tax rate that’s going to help fund that budget. There’s a strict process that the state has dictated for us to use. And there’s a proposed budget, and it’s available for anyone to look at. Then they have the ability to come to the court and speak on that and give their opinion.

Same with the tax rate. It needs to be out there. They need to be able to understand it and know how it affects them or doesn’t affect them. And then also be able to speak on it, because it’s affecting their property taxes.

The whole system is not just we create a budget and then the commissioners court approves it. They listen to the public, and they want the public’s input. Everything we do is to support a service to the citizens of the county.

WACOAN: How many people work in the auditor’s office?

Bartlett: Including me, there’s 15. I’m county auditor, and then I have a first assistant county auditor. She can do things in my absence. Everyone else in our office are assistant county auditors. They do different jobs, from field audits for offices, payroll audit, accounts payable. We have a grant accountant.

WACOAN: This may seem like an elementary question, but when you say you’re going to audit an account, what do you actually do. What are the steps?

Bartlett: Let’s say they have an account for supplies, like accounts payable disbursements going out. From the onset of when they put in a requisition because they want to order copy paper, that is audited from that point to the point the check leaves the county bank account.

So they enter a requisition. We have a purchasing department that originally takes that requisition turns it into [a purchase order]. They audit it from that side and make sure that it appears to be a legal, valid purchase, and then they’re able to make that purchase. Then we get that invoice. We match it up with the original documents, and then someone in our office actually takes that invoice, and we look for things. Is the vendor valid? Is there anything strange going on with the vendor? We recalculate it. We make sure that it is a legal purchase and that it serves the county purpose. Is it budgeted? That’s the final thing. Is it budgeted? Those are the kind of the things they’re looking at.

Then we say good to go, I OK the check to be sent. That’s what then gets sent to the commissioners court and then they have to say, ‘OK, the auditor’s office is good with it. We are also giving our OK on it as well.’ And then that allows something like that to go out.

It’s the same thing when we have money coming in. Here comes a check or a draft or whatever comes into our account. We study that. We make sure that it is something that’s ours and then we have to find out exactly what that’s for. And then we book it to the correct account in our general ledger.

A lot of money comes in through our field offices. Let’s say you go in to [the justice of the peace office] and you pay your traffic ticket. We audit those offices, usually on a monthly basis. We get this list of receipts, and so we may pull a sample and we see you paid this traffic ticket on this day. We pull all that back up. We make sure that what they collected from you was what they were supposed to collect from you by law, that there wasn’t anything more or less collected. And we also make sure that that money was spread to the places that it needed to go. Some of it’s retained by the county, some of it’s sent to the state Parks and Wildlife [Department], things like that. We follow something from the time it comes in until the time it leaves.

WACOAN: When you’re auditing things, what causes you to take a closer look? What makes a red flag pop up?

Bartlett: Auditing in general, you want to check for consistency and reasonability.

Sometimes it’s just something that makes you kind of step back and [think] something just doesn’t seem right. Maybe something isn’t consistent or doesn’t seem reasonable. A lot of times, that’s the first sign of something that’s not necessarily fraud but there’s an error, that it’s not consistent, and it just doesn’t seem reasonable. But it depends on what you’re looking at too.

We do lots of checking, always checking back to some source document or to some statute. And when you go to either of those two things, you know, if there’s some discrepancy there, then, definitely we’ve got to make some changes here or do some adjustments.

WACOAN: Have you ever caught anything that was deliberately not as it should have been?

Bartlett: Our office as a whole, yes, we have had instances where we have come across something that was not done correctly. A lot of times those will end up in the news. And that goes back to us looking at everything, even if it’s something small.

You really have to dig into the details, whether it’s one invoice or one time sheet or one cash receipt, whatever that may be. You can’t look at every single transaction; it’s just impossible. But really having an eye to know, broad picture, everything looks OK. But when I hone in on one little area, I need to keep digging. Usually that digging leads to one small instance and then you can kind of build on things like that, follow that trail. Sometimes there’s no trail and then that’s where of course there’s sometimes a problem, or the trail leads to something that is not valid or legal.

WACOAN: What drew you into accounting?

Bartlett: I’ve always really just enjoyed numbers and math, but I also knew that I liked the business side of things too. Accounting is just the perfect combination of those. Governmental audit isn’t really something they push in colleges, or they didn’t at that time. And so I had one class in governmental accounting but not too much experience with it. I ended up working for Pattillo, Brown & Hill straight out of Baylor. I worked in their governmental audit section, going out to county cities and school districts and being an outside auditor in these kind of offices, and I fell in love with governmental accounting. It’s very different. Then a position came open at McLennan County, so it was perfect.

WACOAN: Besides the accounting, what do you like about your job?

Bartlett: I like that it’s something different every single day. We have stuff that we do that’s consistent, of course, being auditors and doing accounting, but it’s always different.

I also enjoy all the different types of people that make up the county employee roster and all the elected officials. It’s just a big network of people that really want to make the county a good place and they want to provide the best services to the citizens. They all work really hard, and it’s very evident when you get to know those people that that’s ultimately their goal, whether it’s an elected official or someone that’s a clerk in an office.

WACOAN: What’s the hardest part of your job?

Bartlett: Sometimes it’s hard to be that middle person. Everyone — elected officials, department heads, county employees — they want the best for the county, but sometimes we’re tasked with making sure that whatever is being done is legal per state statute. And so when we find something that we can’t do it that way, we need to adjust the way we’re doing this. This process may take a little bit longer, but we need to go through this process so that it’s transparent. Sometimes being in that spot can be difficult.

But I think really, when it comes down to it, employees and elected officials understand that we’re here to make sure that’s done properly and we want to protect them and we want to protect the citizens. Sometimes that can be difficult to be that person to tell someone, ‘Nope. Stop. We’ve got to back up and do this a different way.’

WACOAN: Have you lived in McLennan County your whole life?

Bartlett: Yes. I grew up in Axtell. I went to Axtell schools, and I went to MCC and then graduated from Baylor in 2004 with my BBA in accounting. I’m a CPA as well.

WACOAN: What keeps you in McLennan County?

Bartlett: It’s a great place to raise a family. My family’s here, and my husband’s family is here. I just love this area. I love everything about it. I love the history and I love the people, and it’s just a great place to live.