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State Auditor’s office has partnered with graduate accounting students at West Virginia University to help monitor the finances of small, local municipalities across the state.

State Auditor J.B. McCuskey hopes the program, which launched with 36 students as a pilot program earlier this fall, will help small, cash-strapped governments meet state financial requirements cheaper and easier.

“The state doesn’t have any more money, the cities don’t have enough money and we don’t have enough people — nor can we hire any more people, because we don’t have enough money,” McCuskey said. “So what’s the solution, right? We tried to find a way to get these audits done that didn’t cost any more money, and our best solution was to go to the universities for help.”

 

The idea for the program took shape over the summer, when WVU associate professor Scott Fleming met with staff members from McCuskey’s office. Fleming, who teaches a graduate accounting course, had been looking for some way for his students to get hands-on experience using real auditing software.

“When you talk to our recent graduates, the ones who have been in the job market for a year or two … there’s a couple [of] things that always pop up,” Fleming said. “They wish they could have a little bit more Excel training, and for the ones in auditing, they wish they could have actually used some of this audit software.”

The Auditor’s office was also looking for a way to help local municipalities — like small cities and boards of education — meet requirements set forth in state law to audit and monitor their finances every year.

Through the program, WVU students can securely access financial information through an Internet connection to the Auditor’s office. Over the course of the semester as students learn different accounting principles, they put those lessons to use on real-life data.

“The students found out that not all the data and the information is as sanitized as it is in the textbook,” Fleming said. “They found out that there’s timing differences, there’s gray areas and sometimes signatures are difficult to read. In a textbook, that’s all cleaned up. They really got to use more of their critical thinking with this process.”

Deputy State Auditor Stuart Stickel oversees financial monitoring of local municipalities, but he said his office of about 30 people can’t meet the needs of hundreds of government agencies across the state. His office maintains a list of certified public accountants who can do the job, but small government agencies can’t always afford to pay for those services. That, in turn, means many accountants are hesitant to take on the work.

“It’s not an audit. It’s more or less a monitoring report,” Stickel said of the work the students complete. “Basically, we were just looking for a mechanism to find a way to utilize the accounting students to do some monitoring for the local governments so the local governments don’t have to pay for the audits.”

To make sure such monitoring complies with state law, McCuskey said the lawmakers might consider legislation to tweak law surrounding how audits are conducted when they meet again in January. All of the work will be overseen by staff in the Auditor’s office.

The program will return next fall with a new batch of graduate students, and Fleming hopes he can start introducing undergraduate seniors into the mix. Fleming and the Auditor’s office hope that, once the program is perfected, it can be expanded to other public colleges and universities across the state.


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